Circular Economy Initiative sets out steps towards a sustainable packaging industry
Munich, 26 March 2021
Packaging, often made from plastic, accounts for a large proportion of the growing mountains of waste produced by our society. But hardly any of it is currently recycled to a quality that is usable for new packaging. A circular packaging industry could change this. Published today, a report by the Circular Economy Initiative Deutschland sets out how a circular economy for packaging could be achieved. The Initiative examines the entire product life cycle of plastic packaging, from design to production, use and material recycling. It concludes that coordinated measures are needed across the entire value chain in order to prevent unnecessary packaging waste and keep packaging materials within the loop.
Our bins are overflowing with more and more packaging. In 2018, Germany produced 227.5 kilos of packaging waste per capita, more than any other country in Europe. And this figure is set to be significantly higher in 2020 due to changes in consumer behaviour during lockdown. The vast quantities of packaging waste and the growing consumption of resources to produce packaging have already been recognised as a problem for many years.
According to Henkel’s Thomas Müller-Kirschbaum, co-chair of the Circular Economy Initiative Deutschland’s Packaging Working Group, “A circular economy approach has the potential to reduce the negative environmental impacts of the high and rising levels of packaging and waste in Germany.” He adds that, in a circular economy, the aim is “to avoid packaging wherever possible, use resources efficiently, and make packaging that can be used for as long as possible, and that can be reused and recycled into high-grade products.”
Particularly low recycling rates for plastic packaging
Recycling rates for paper, cardboard, glass and metal are relatively high (over 85%) because they involve single-material waste streams and (in the case of metal) have high value-added. However, the equivalent figure for plastic packaging in Germany is just 47%. In 2018, more than half of all plastic packaging waste was incinerated. Moreover, only a fraction of recycled packaging materials are used to produce new packaging. In 2019, the average recycled content of new packaging was just 10.9%, meaning that the remaining 90% was made from virgin plastic.
The public tends to regard plastic as an intrinsically environmentally unfriendly material. In actual fact, however, comparisons of the life cycle assessments of different packaging systems often belie this generalisation. Packaging cannot be categorised as environmentally friendly or unfriendly purely on the basis of the material it is made from. Packaging sustainability assessments require expert evaluation of multiple, sometimes conflicting criteria across the entire life cycle. For example, resource conservation improvements may also lead to higher energy consumption and thus increase emissions that are damaging to the climate.
The need for an appropriate framework and incentives
Experts from the Circular Economy Initiative Deutschland carried out a case study of plastic packaging for detergents and cheese. It revealed that the packaging market is fragmented – many packaging manufacturers produce packaging that is optimised for the requirements of a specific product, resulting in a wide variety of packaging types and materials. As far as the recycling infrastructure is concerned, this means that a large number of process steps are required in terms of sorting, plastic fractions and different recycling methods. The resulting complexity means that plastic packaging cannot be recycled profitably. While there are several things that can be done at different levels to address this situation, there are no simple, one-size-fits-all solutions. One approach involves making greater use of mono-material solutions, of which PET bottles are a good example. This must be accompanied by overall harmonisation of waste streams at EU level – in other words, the number of different types of plastic brought into circulation in the first place must be significantly reduced. For this to happen, policymakers will need to create the appropriate regulatory framework and financial incentives.
According to the working group’s co-chair, Peter Elsner, of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) and the Fraunhofer Institute for Chemical Technology (ICT), “While existing policy measures such as Germany’s Packaging Act, Waste Prevention Programme and recycling targets are a step in the right direction, they have a number of shortcomings, such as the lack of binding targets, monitoring mechanisms and quality standards. Quality is key – ideally, PET bottles should be recycled into new PET bottles or other types of food packaging rather than into drainpipes or textile fibres as is often currently the case. Packaging distributors must also take greater responsibility for the entire packaging life cycle.”
The working group co-chaired by Thomas Müller-Kirschbaum and Peter Elsner identified six initial steps that can be taken towards the establishment of a circular packaging industry:
- Create a widely recognised tool to help with the selection of alternative packaging types.
- Set concrete, binding targets for reducing packaging and preventing packaging waste.
- Reflect circular economy principles in packaging design and create the corresponding financial incentive systems.
- Harmonise the collection and sorting infrastructure throughout Germany, ensuring that waste is separated by material type and that new digital solutions are utilised.
- Promote the modernisation of the existing recycling infrastructure and advances in recycling technology in order to improve the quality of recycled materials.
- Increase the use of recycled materials and new, bio-based materials. This will require the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to approve new uses for recycled materials. It will also call for the establishment of recycling and recycled material standards and the gradual introduction of recycled content requirements.
About the Circular Economy Initiative’s Packaging Working Group
The Circular Economy Initiative Deutschland’s Packaging Working Group comprises researchers and representatives of leading German companies and civil society organisations with expertise in the field of packaging. The working group’s recommendations are directed at government, science and industry, and set out a number of important first steps for transforming the current system into a circular economy for packaging.