It’s promising for our future if a sustainability philosophy (circular economy) gets significant attention at a televised global meeting such as the glossy World Economic Forum in Davos. If the “jet-setting C-suite” is now privy to the fact that sustainability could potentially be the best way to mitigate risk in an increasingly complex world (such as partially outlined in Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s The New Plastics Economy: Catalyzing Action report), it means that we can at least have hope that business leaders will rise to fill the void created by the world’s governments facing identity crises and/or those unable or unwilling to make systemic change.
So the fact that over 40 global corporations and organizations have signed on the New Plastics Economy (as well as the similar-in-spirit but different Business Backs Low Carbon) means there is reason for tempered, if not earnest optimism. It is in many ways a relief that a single report is able to capture and explain the momentum around reconceptualizing plastics that has been crystallizing within many organizations and companies for several years now, and point to specifically what that might look like. These important considerations haven’t had quite as broad and deep an audience until the formation of the New Plastics Economy.
On the other hand, it’s no true surprise that an initiative as forward thinking and smart as circular economy, designed and talked about in such a charismatic and compelling way (with pretty PDFs and dynamic web experiences via Ellen MacArthur Foundation and IDEO) would capture the hearts of many.
The flipside to this sense of promise and ambition is the sobering realization that despite dazzling visualizations that demystify potential reuse cycles for plastics or show how to drastically reduce leakage of them into the ocean—the professionals “in the trenches” of packaging sustainability still have to find an actual means to make these enormously large and complicated challenges fathomable, surmountable. In other words, we have to find a literal real life way to make it all work.
Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC) is the organization best poised to make many of the New Plastics Economy’s most recent recommendations a reality.
For 13 years, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC) has empowered industry to blaze its own path towards well-designed solutions that reflect on-the-ground sustainable packaging realities. Over 175 companies are members of SPC because they know that building resilient, circular packaging requires knowing the context of one’s work, specifically how to use sustainability to create value, and what parts of the future you can not only forecast and prepare for, but proactively design. We do that by facilitating conversation, encouraging harmonization, and analyzing and sharing information. Coincidentally, these are the ‘building blocks’ that the Catalyzing Action report precisely calls as necessary.
This means that SPC is an information broker (such as EPAT, SPC’s Centralized Availability of Recycling study), a tool builder (such as Landscape Assurance Model, How2Compost), and a innovation facilitator (for example, evolving the notion of ‘bioplastics’, taking a position against biodegradability additives).
There are a few SPC projects that are particularly well suited to make the New Plastics Economy a reality—especially where the report talks about the need for feedback loops. Specifically, it recommends, “To successfully implement the [packaging] design changes [required for recyclability], communication between packaging designers at the front end and the after use processors at the back end is an important enabler. Such feedback loops would also help to understand further design-improvement potential.”
One of SPC’s projects that exactly meets this description is the on-package recycling label system that is changing consumer behavior and being leveraged to inspire design change: How2Recycle.
How2Recycle is a feedback mechanism that is changing packaging design and consumer behavior in several ways. First, the How2Recycle label equips its members with accurate and credible information about the recyclability of their packaging. The Catalyzing Action report says industry should “implement design changes in plastic packaging to improve recycling quality and economics (eg choices of materials, additives, and formats).” The How2Recycle decisionmaking process already takes this spectrum of issues into consideration when it issues each How2Recycle label, so that each package reflects a custom recyclability assessment.
As long as the penetration of the How2Recycle label continues to proliferate in the marketplace, which is informed by the expertise of the APR Design® Guide for Plastics Recyclability and other industry experts, How2Recycle will continue to drive incentives for specific packaging design improvements. Our members tell us that the How2Recycle label triggers internal conversation about recyclability, gives brands an easy way to talk about recyclability with suppliers, and broadens perspective on material and format choices.
Second, How2Recycle is building an online platform for its members that will enable brands to track the recyclability of their packaging portfolio, meaningfully interpret what that means, and then be provided specific, dynamic feedback for them to improve. This could become a critical tool if companies embrace it in order to measure progress towards and eventually hit their emerging corporate recyclability goals.
Third, How2Recycle is a critical feedback loop because it facilitates peer-to-peer competition. With over 60 companies that represent over 500 brands in the marketplace, How2Recycle members are able to see how the recyclability of their packaging stacks up against others’. In some cases, these comparisons create easy opportunities to make design tweaks to get a “better” How2Recycle label. Voluntary programs like How2Recycle that are based on transparency push the entire industry forward.
Fourth, How2Recycle’s influence doesn’t only flow towards brands, but also in the other direction—towards the general public. If 67% of consumers assume that packaging isn’t recyclable if they don’t see a recycling claim on the package (Carton Council, 2016), and if 50% of consumers tell us in our survey that they are changing their behavior as a result of How2Recycle, this means How2Recycle’s actual and potential future impact is significant. Our data suggests that consumers are not only recycling more because of How2Recycle, but recycling more accurately. For example, How2Recycle’s “Empty & Replace Cap” message on plastic bottles adds an important level of detail so that the caps are far more likely to be recovered and don’t end up as litter—especially in the ocean. Additionally, the Not Yet recycled label helps consumers know what they should not recycle, which reduces contamination at recycling facilities.
How2Recycle is not the only SPC project that supports the idea of a new plastics economy.
Importantly, SPC events such as SustPack and SPC Advance (each fall) transcend traditional silos along the value chain; these conferences bring hundreds of companies into the same room in order to hash out the detailed opportunities and challenges in packaging sustainability. For example, Amazon’s presentation at SustPack in April explored how to design packaging for e-commerce that reduces waste and minimizes damage. In turn, SPC events allow our members to benchmark themselves against the innovation curve. This information means that the professionals within SPC companies can make the internal argument to acquire better resources to accomplish more work—once they understand what industry leadership is looking like and what they need to do in order to stay innovative.
SPC also offers The Essentials of Sustainable Packaging customized training courses that provide companies a comprehensive introduction to sustainability considerations across the packaging life cycle: sourcing, design, recovery, and beyond. By traveling to brandowners’ headquarters, SPC staff talks to design and sustainability teams about how to balance tradeoffs in packaging design considerations and analyze attributes such as forest certification or recycled content. Through this course, SPC is setting companies free with critical information to make their circular economy ambitions come to life.
ASTRX, Applying Systems Thinking to Recycling, is a joint project between SPC and The Recycling Partnership. This new initiative will build a roadmap for a stronger American recycling industry by diving deep into how materials flow through each of the five elements of recycling: end markets, reprocessing, sortation, collection, and consumer engagement. To increase recovery, ASTRX will examine each element of the recycling system, identify barriers to recovering more high quality materials, and develop solutions that support each element and thus help the recycling system as a whole.
The Catalyzing Action report also calls for “scaling up compostable plastics in order to capture nutrient-contaminated packaging.” SPC’s parent nonprofit, GreenBlue, has developed the Composting Collaborative—a group that unites composters, consumer-facing businesses, and policymakers to accelerate composting access and infrastructure in North America. Additionally, SPC will release findings this spring from the Value of Compostable Packaging measurement project, that demonstrates to what extent compostable packaging can play a role in capturing food waste that would otherwise go to landfill.
SPC has both the vision and the means to make the future of new plastic real.
But in order to truly make it all work, as a collective, we have to wade through the Everglades. We have to lay down transatlantic fiber optic cables with our bare hands. This sort of work requires self-awareness, humility, and discipline.
Kelly Cramer wrote a companion piece to this article that can be found on GreenBiz.