• Manufacturing, Innovation, Business

Industry, regulators, and consumers must act in concert to make sustainable packaging a reality

In his position as the President for Flexible Packaging at global packaging manufacturer Huhtamaki, Marco Hilty is at the forefront of the company’s innovation development. Seeing the advances made by Huhtamaki, he is convinced: a world where food packaging is part of a fully circular economy is not only desirable, but within reach. He stresses that to achieve it, all members of the packaging ecosystem will have to contribute.

The mission that Marco Hilty is intent on achieving with Huhtamaki is simple: “We want 100% recyclable, compostable, or reusable packaging.” This to be completed in 2030 – and to reach it, the company has developed a precise roadmap, as Hilty explains. To begin with, as he outlines, it requires Huhtamaki to shift from products based on a mix of materials to packaging solutions that are made of one single material to a mono-material which significantly helps with recycling. There are three substances that are in his view most likely to facilitate that transition: paper, polyethylene, and polypropylene. “Paper has the advantage that it is not only recyclable but also compostable and even biodegradable,” Hilty illustrates, “polyethylene will be a key solution on the plastic side.” He emphasises, however, for this so-called “mono-material” packaging to become a commercial success, a certain leap in innovation is pivotal. Specifically, Hilty says, they must meet the same high food protection standard as aluminium – a material that excels at shielding food from both air and humidity. The key task facing Huhtamaki is, therefore, to ensure that “paper, polyethylene, and polypropylene get to the same or required level of performance”. Hilty is optimistic that this is only a matter of time: “We are very close to developing solutions for all of them”.

Creating the right conditions: the role of regulators

Developing fully recyclable packaging is only one step of many on the path to close the packaging loop. Another is to ensure that the industry receives the secondary raw materials it needs, in order to produce sustainable packaging solutions. Here, Hilty sees a clear need for action from multiple stakeholders. In particular, he argues that governments and public authorities must create an environment that rewards and incentivizes recycling. According to Marco, the first step in this process is to ensure that there is the capacity to supply the industry with sustainable materials: “We need infrastructure in place, to recycle.” This point is especially crucial to Hilty since the packaging value chain as a whole is committed to ensuring that circular materials are kept in circular systems: “The willingness of brand owners to pay for post-consumer recycling is there.” To enable the industry to act on its resolves, it is therefore pivotal for regulators to support putting the corresponding systems in place.

Yet this is not the only instrument at the disposal of policymakers, according to Hilty: “Governments need to foster private sector innovation.” Rather than to set tight boundaries for industry when it comes to recycling, he argues, politicians should grant industry the possibility to explore what solutions are most efficient at reaching the joint goal of sustainability. Apart from the choice of the packaging material itself, this also applies to their sorting and recycling processes, he states. As an example, Hilty points to a pilot project in Denmark called “Holy Grail 2.0” whose aim is to make the sorting process for packaging waste more efficient using digital watermarks: “The code covers the surface, recording the packaging type, materials, and usage. Based on that, you can sort it correctly into right streams.” Such technologies, he highlights, could prove more energy- and resource-efficient than many of their touted alternatives.

Education & Empowerment: the role of consumers

Politicians are not the only stakeholders who play a crucial role in advancing the cause of packaging recycling, according to Hilty. To him, the role of consumers is just as significant – and, so far, perilously underestimated. Any strategy to improve recycling rates must therefore include measures to “incentivize consumers to help with sorting and collecting,” he stresses. Otherwise, perfectly recyclable materials risk being lost for the industry. In Hilty’s view, this is primarily an educational effort, since citizens often remain underinformed about the best way to support recycling systems at home: “I used to live in the United States: people often did not know what to do with recycling, that you should not put it into waste bags first before dropping it into the recycling bin.” Empowering consumers to embrace the important part they play in the loop is thus, according to Hilty, the other key building block in a circular future for packaging:

“We have a three-fold challenge: recyclability, recycling infrastructure, and consumers who need to clean and sort.”

Promoting the circular economy in India

Speaking specifically about challenges for sustainable packaging in India, Hilty identifies three additional factors that need to be taken into consideration: humidity, quantity, and affordability. Hilty thus underlines that the country’s climate requires packaging materials to provide a particularly resilient protection barrier. Likewise, he notes that buying food in bulk is not a very common practice in India. Since products therefore need to be sold in smaller quantities, this creates more used packaging and a need for more rigorous collection. Given present levels of the average household income in India, it is also important to keep the costs of packaging as low as possible, Hilty emphasises. At the same time, this has also spurred significant technology advances in packaging solutions: “I see exciting innovation coming out of India addressing these issues , focusing on ensuring that solutions are developed which people can afford.” Ultimately, however, these issues pale in comparison to what Hilty considers to be the far more universal challenge facing the global packaging industry: “There are some unique challenges for India but all of them get resolved if you have a good recycling process and if consumers are willing and educated to contribute to recycling.”

He highlights that Huhtamaki is already engaged in making major headway in this area in India: on 2 May, the company opened a new facility in Khopoli that is intended to boost circularity in the country. “We collect waste out of rivers and take it to the recycling plant,” he explains, “We will produce pellets that can be used in other production processes elsewhere. We will close the loop of post consumer waste.” To Hilty, the initiative is emblematic of how companies can proactively contribute to making the world at large more sustainable by advancing recycling and tackling environmental pollution. Yet he stresses that this has to be a joint endeavour that has the buy-in of all stakeholders: “We can only do this together.”

This article is part of a series where different stakeholders discuss ways to redefine recycling systems through value chain innovation. The articles are published following of our virtual roundtable.

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