As we all recalibrate to the current environment, we are reminded of what is important and how connected we are. Although we face many challenges, we must not let these heavy times delay the important work we are called to do for our planet. It’s time for collective action to reverse the plastic waste crisis. The future of the planet is in our hands.
This blog series has been developed for the consumer packaged goods (CPG) industry to encourage and support collaboration and sustainable packaging innovation. We must work together to succeed in this system-level work. Our first step is to establish a shared vision for the future – a vision for a zero-waste world.
Blog Series: Journey to a Zero-Waste World
The packaging materials of the past were not designed with the end in mind. As our oceans fill with plastic, it is clear that is time for the packaging industry to evolve our materials and material management systems.
There are many unseen industry dynamics that are blocking sustainable packaging innovation. To break through these blocks we have developed this series, ‘Journey to a Zero-Waste World,’ as a means to support industry change and provide a shared framework and language. Our goal is to foster collaboration and inspire innovation.
Throughout the course of this series, we aim to shift the paradigm around how the industry thinks about materials. We will cover the big picture of the entire packaging ecosystem, including materials, manufacturing, and waste management, and discuss new strategies for eliminating waste.
-- RCD Packaging
To kick-off this journey, we must first define a shared vision for the future – a vision for a zero-waste world.
Chapter 1: Let’s Create a New Vision
We have all come to know the devastating realities of our current plastic waste crisis. The fact that scientists predict that by 2050 the plastic in the ocean will outweigh the fish is enough to make anyone jump into action. But where do we start?
Today, the packaging industry has the opportunity to create a new future – one where we can deliver products to one another without creating excess waste in the process. The first step is to envision the ideal state of a zero-waste world.
Imagine a world without waste. A world where every trash can is replaced by a recycling bin and compost bin. The oceans and waterways are clean, and the stomachs of birds, fish and whales are free of plastic.
We have a new way of thinking about materials and designing products to be harmonious with nature. All products and packaging are made out of materials that can be reused, recycled or composted. Green chemistry is used to eliminate toxins, and a new class of single-use packaging has been developed to provide nutrients to the next natural cycle – land, soil & sea – if they should ever
escape our material collection infrastructure.
In this world, carbon is sequestered with healthy soil and product distribution systems are solar powered. Basic knowledge about materials and the circular economy are part of education fundamentals like geography and math. This is a world where all humans are material mindful.
Although this vision for a zero-waste world may seem impossible to some, we have the manpower and the intellect to build it.
The Journey to a Zero-Waste World
As an industry, it is important to take this journey to a zero-waste world in unison. As we embark on this collaborative work, let’s use the vision of the zero-waste world as an ideal state to strive for; a target to align our efforts and move forward in the same direction.
Map to a Zero-Waste Future
Establish a shared vision and get real about the size and scale of our waste crisis.
Map out the materials and infrastructure used today, how packaging is made, and the limits of our existing waste management infrastructure. This helps us understand what tools we have available.
Look to the basic principles of circular economy to bolster material end-markets and establish new criteria of what materials we will let into the system moving forward.
Work together to develop new materials and build new material management systems.
Incorporate the fundamentals of material & material management into our school systems, and make material education a top priority.
It’s Time to Upgrade Our Materials
As the industry moves towards a zero-waste world, a large portion of our packaging must be redesigned around material reuse. As such, we will need to develop new reusable packaging and novel reuse infrastructure to handle a large portion of product delivery.
Yet, not every product can fit this reuse model. There are many circumstances in which we need lightweight single-use packaging so that we can safely deliver goods to one another and protect products from the environment and contamination. This is where flexible film packaging plays a major role today.
These multilayer laminates are lightweight and cheap, which makes this type of packaging a favorite among CPG brands. Unfortunately, conventional flexible film packaging is made out of materials that are not recyclable and are a major contributor to the ocean plastic crisis.
To get to a zero-waste world, we must redesign single-use packaging and rethink our materials.
The petroleum plastic materials of the past will not get us to where we need to go. Plastic single-use packaging was invented in a time when people thought their resources were infinite and their impact small. The engineers, brilliant as they were, developed packaging materials to perform, but did not consider the end-of-life of these materials in their design criteria. They could not have imagined how the plastic packaging they were developing would soon clog the rivers and flood the seas.
We Now Know Better... We Must Evolve.
It is time to create new materials and material management systems. Sustainable packaging technology today is in its early stages, like when computers were the size of a room. Just as computer technology has evolved rapidly, the evolution of sustainable packaging technology can develop with collective focus and energy. While there are already some great bio-material packaging technologies available, we need a lot more. We need new films, coatings, and inks that do not wreak havoc on nature. As we drive the packaging industry forward, we will find our solutions in unsuspecting places such as the science of soil health, and design concepts inspired by biomimicry. It is time to think about materials in a whole new way and create packaging that functions like an orange peel to the orange.
Time for Collective Action
Getting to a zero-waste world will take a lot of work. It will take industry-wide education, collaboration, and innovation to evolve our materials and material management systems, including recycling, reuse, and our composting infrastructure.
The siloed nature of the consumer packaged goods (CPG) industry is just one of several blocks to sustainable packaging innovation. To break through we must step outside the normal competitive nature of business. We are already seeing a major trend of companies willing to share knowledge to address global scale issues like ocean plastic. For example, many large corporations are starting to align their sustainability efforts around the ‘Circular Economy’ guidelines set by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
This is a great start, but collaboration is needed to move solutions forward. This can be done through industry-wide innovation workshops and cross functional rapid prototyping teams working across the value chain. It is a simple, yet powerful idea. Ongoing teamwork creates a potent idea pipeline, bringing great solutions to the market faster. As a group we are powerful. Leaders need to ideate and develop new ideas and solutions to drive us forward. As we embark on this collaborative work, let’s use the vision of the zero-waste world as the "ideal state."
As an industry we have proven we are capable of great things. We are brilliant innovators very capable of coordinated action. The future depends on our focus and commitment to this important shift. Let's build a movement together and form the plans. Let's #changepackaging4good.
Side Notes: The Origins of ‘Zero-Waste’ Terminology & Culture
The term zero-waste, first coined in the 1970’s, is defined as a set of principles focused on waste prevention – with a goal that no trash be sent to landfills, incinerators, or the ocean. We build on this definition, and use the term ‘zero-waste’ throughout this series to symbolize our targeted collective vision.
There is also a movement of zero-waste as a lifestyle. People that live a zero-waste lifestyle organize their lives to avoid almost all single-use plastic. We have much admiration for the individuals that are disciplined enough to live this way.
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