Packaging Industry: The COVID-19 experience can inspire packaging circular future

The packaging industry has experienced many challenges and changes. Recent pressure to adopt the Circular Material Economic Principle is rapidly gaining momentum and businesses and industry are gearing up to move that way.

As an industry we have discovered several gaps in our ability to establish a circular economy, including infrastructure, aligned policy, scale, capacity and technology. I would argue the packaging industry has two more significant gaps in its ability to adopt a circular economy, namely a proper understanding of what it is and the realization that we cannot achieve it unilaterally. There remains the need for a common (global) knowledge platform and for pre-competitive collaboration to facilitate systemic change.

COVID-19 forces dramatic rethinking

The current COVID-19 global emergency has highlighted that the packaging industry can rise to the challenge of maintaining the supply of essentials like food and medicine. However, it has also shown how much we have to learn to facilitate systemic and permanent change to the packaging circular economy.

The coronavirus pandemic has engendered a real sense of urgency, set precedents that will endure beyond the crisis and forced some dramatic rethinking for many people. Furloughed employees, working from home and the dramatic reduction in travel have facilitated a change in where time and effort are spent. Knowledge has become an even more valuable commodity for professionals globally. Packaging webinars, distance learning and online professional development courses have seen an incredible upsurge in popularity, especially concerning circular economy knowledge.

Circular economy requires a collaborative approach

The global packaging community is gearing up for the packaging circular economy at an unprecedented rate. The adoption of similar principles, a common language and nomenclature will facilitate greater co-operation across the globe by all practitioners.

A governing principle for the adoption of circular economy within the UK, Europe and other developed markets is the need for common approaches, collaboration on identifying competitive platforms and a drive to a much more open and consistent approach. Retailers and supermarkets have been identified as a nexus for the supply of goods and return of post-consumer materials and the economies of the schemes underpinning this.

Pre-competitive collaboration has moved from an academic discussion to a relevancy that would have been unthinkable a few months ago. Retailers and supermarkets have had to join forces in an unprecedented way to ensure the effective distribution of essentials, evolving a model and a practice of how these competitive giants can co-operate for a common goal.

Learning from the coronavirus experience

The experience gained will be directly applicable to the development of key elements of the packaging circular economy while the precedents set will be a model for future collaboration. The networks developed and the relationships built during the crisis will invariably be in place and equally as important afterward.

The crisis will abate and we will settle into a new normality. The priorities will adjust and the drive for the packaging circular economy will climb the priority list once again. I would argue that this is where the benefits of the aligned knowledge and practiced collaboration will have its biggest impact in defining the development and delivery with diligence and pace – two elements of the packaging circular economy we would potentially have struggled with.

Post-corona, post-linear

Many material economies pre-COVID-19 were very much linear in design. When we analyze the effects and consequences of this linear default post-crisis, what will be laid bare are the shortcomings of the linear model and the benefits of the circular one. Questions, like “What has happened to all the used PPE?” or “Why use recycled plastic when plastic from crude oil is so cheap?” will be difficult to answer.

The increased capability and alignment will be instrumental in defining the restart of the global effort to roll out the packaging circular economy. We, as packaging professionals, and the industries surrounding and supporting us should now look to embrace these new commonalities. We should analyze the systems of the past and the experience of the recent crisis to build collaborative approaches for a robust packaging circular economy.

Mike Swain, MD and Founder of Pack IDS Ltd

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