As we move towards understanding waste as a challenge of resource constraints, we’re realizing that impacts occur all along the lifecycle of products, and not just at end of life. In fact, decisions made as a result of our design, processing, manufacturing and transportation processes will significantly impact the potential for material reuse, remanufacturing, recycling or discard. Viewing material use in this manner significantly changes the ways in which sustainable production is evaluated.
However, there is still a division between those who believe we should recover everything and those who wish to focus on a few select materials. As the packaging and waste communities continue to find solutions to these challenges, two emerging models have captured the public interest and are framing these discussions.
The Circular Economy (CE) and Sustainable Materials Management (SMM) approaches help us evaluate the consumption and use of material, and encourage us to innovate for sustainability. Both are designed to help rethink our relationship to waste, resource demand and material use. Both seek to decrease negative environmental impact by reducing toxicity and using less materials for longer. While there are many similarities between these models, there are also differences which require further understanding to ensure to how best to leverage them for the greater good.
SMM requires the evaluation of all environmental impacts involved in the lifecycle of materials in order to identify where, and how, resources are being consumed and where, and how, pollution and other wastes are occurring. By mapping out environmental impacts both by material type, and industrial process, SMM helps identify the materials and processes with the greatest environmental challenges and most significant opportunities to drive change. SMM works from the premise that we need to make tradeoffs in order to drive change in our current state.
The Circular Economy is a more aspirational model that re-conceptualizes economic and production systems in order to retain products and materials at their highest utility and value at all times. Creating new business models which permit the design of materials and processes in order to create continuous looping of material goods, or to use materials and systems which utilize regenerative natural cycles, are key objectives within a CE model.
Both SMM and CE are designed to be broad, flexible models available to all industries. This creates opportunity for widespread adoption, but also puts at risk the ability to optimize for industry specific challenges. Adaptability, not dogmatic practice, is required in adopting these models for practical use.
As we apply these models to the packaging industry, we cannot look at packaging in isolation from its primary role as a protection mechanism for other products. Rather, we must evaluate the choices that best enable the optimization of the product-packaging system. When we acknowledge packaging as part of a larger system and not as an isolated product, we begin to see why there may be tradeoffs and why a ‘one-model-fits-all’ approach will not produce optimal functional, economic, or environmental results.
Recycled Content Mandates
A common policy currently used to promote recycling and the development of viable end markets for recycled material is the application of recycled content mandates. It is argued that a mandate will stimulate markets by increasing demand for recycled content. This would therefore create more jobs and encourage a virtuous loop of material reuse.
Mandates are an example of a supportive Circular Economy policy. However, a deeper analysis utilizing Sustainable Materials Management tools such as lifecycle analysis (LCA) suggests that mandates need to be more specific in order to achieve maximum results: While using recycled content may generally be assumed to provide an environmental benefit, there may be cases where unintended consequences occur, and the result is the opposite of what is expected.
For example, according to the American Forestry and Paper Association (AF&PA), paper recovery occurs within a hierarchy. Printed papers, versus alternative fibers such as tissue or paperboard, require additional filtering, cleaning and brightening. This additional processing requires more energy, more chemical use and creates more overall waste. In fact, redirecting recycled paper towards office paper would result in a loss of 30-50 percent fiber versus directing that same recycled product towards paperboard packaging where less processing is required and more than 85-95 percent of the fiber would be recaptured.
A further study by SAPPI Fine Papers found that adding ten percent recycled content to their magazine paper increased their carbon footprint by sixteen percent compared to the same product made with one hundred percent virgin fiber.
In this case, having a CE model, with its vision of reuse, offers an ideal state we can strive towards. However, the SMM model, by helping us understand under what context mandates would result in the greatest benefits and least environmental impacts, would be a necessary compliment to ensure the most sustainable course of action.
Goals such as minimizing waste, reducing raw material consumption, and minimizing energy usage are likely to provide significant environmental and economic benefits. But, understanding how to achieve these goals must include a big picture perspective across both the packaging and product value chains.
Attention to both the Circular Economy and Sustainable Materials Management can help with these efforts. However, we must understand that they are not the same, and that the ways in which each defines the parameters, goals and objectives under which they operate, will set the tone for where and how actions towards sustainable packaging systems are focused.