Its not hip to be square

Its not hip to be square

Mark Shayler asks: What does the circular economy mean for packaging?



I don’t know about you but I’m a bit bemused about the noise around the circular economy. Not the idea – that’s fine. But the fact that it is flavour of the month.

I’m old now, 45. I’ve been working in the environmental field for 25 years. I’ve been working on circular economy (or as we call it – common sense) for the same amount of time.

But at the moment the media and environmental movement are all over it. There’s a number of reasons for this:

1. Ellen MacArthur

The EM Foundation have commissioned and published some amazing research from McKinsey. This is good, it’s brought the issue into the business mainstream and that should be applauded. But they didn’t invent this stuff.

2. We are approaching a perfect storm

Resource price instability, economic uncertainty, the growth in demand of the emerging middle class in the far east. And not forgetting environmental fragility. This means that developing the circular economy becomes a priority. Add to that the need to grow out indigenous industries (including packaging) and the circular economy and control of resources are increasingly important. If we don’t own polymer, fibre and aluminium we can’t make packaging.

3. It’s as cool as green gets

It’s got big names involved. The RSA, WRAP, EMF (not the 1990s band), Green Alliance and many FTSE 100 companies are all over it. It’s the big party and if you’re not there, you’re square.

So, it’s the hottest ticket in town. Best get our dancing trousers (or equivalent) out and start to boogie.

But what does this mean for packaging? Packaging gets a bad rap (pun completely intended) for lots of things but its funadamentally good for resource use as it stops stuff going off and getting damaged. But how do we make packaging circular? To a degree it already is. We recycle 52% of PET bottles, 60% of all glass bottles, and around 60% of all aluminium cans. Not bad. Room for improvement but definitely heading in the right way. So how do we do better. There are a number of areas we need to look at.

1. Waste collection

Our patchwork waste collection system is crazy. Our 376 waste collection authorities can, if they wish. all collect different materials. This needs making uniform and more consistent. Furthermore, there is no reason why simple and widely used materials such as PP can’t be included in weekly (or fortnightly) collections. There is no technical or economic reason why this can’t be sorted. That said co-ordinating local authorities can be like herding kittens. Time for Eric Pickles to do something (anything) useful.

2. Packaging design

There have been major advances in the simplification and resource efficient design in packaging. These need to be recognised and celebrated. However, there are still examples of very complex collections of materials that mean packaging can not be recovered at the end of life. Some pump sprays have seen the plastic ball replaced with a steel ball and this messes up recovery and threatens the recovery and reprocessing machines. Simple design, few materials, easily separable please. The RSA’s Great Recovery project has made good progress here by taking designers to waste reprocessing plants and immersing them in the practical problems of their designing and the scale of the situation.

3. Communication

Sometimes it isn’t possible to use mono-material packs. Or the benefits of multi-layer packs outweigh the recovery of materials. Using a laminated foil pouch can massively increase the shelf-life of some products. But they aren’t currently recyclable. So we reduce food waste (Hurrah!) but have a non-circular pack design (Boo!). But which is best? It depends on the product and it’s associated carbon impact. We need to be clear and there needs to be further research (probably by WRAP) to identify the main benefits of different packaging materials. Most importantly, this needs communicating to the public.

4. Recycled materials

Supply is only one half of the equation as any economist will tell you. Demand also requires stimulation. Designers should be looking at specifying recycled materials were possible. The use of recycled PET has grown healthily until quality declined. This is bad and can stop a resource revolution in its tracks. Coca Cola have made some significant advances in ensure recyclate quality by working with Eco Plastics to develop the Hemswell PET reprocessing plant. Recyclate quality is crucial if we are to grow the demand side.

5. Importing

If product is made abroad then the packaging is made abroad. We need to be sensible and understand that exporting packaging to countries that make product is not necessarily a bad thing. It seems nonsensical at first but if that’s where the demand is then that’s cool. Clearly we’d all like to see the UK manufacturing sector pick up and this would allow significant opportunities to close the loop more tightly. Oh yes, it’ll also be good for jobs and the economy. What’s not to like.

So packaging is in pretty good shape from a circularity point of view. New and complex laminates pose problems but the benefits they provide may outweigh these problems. We need to encourage good design, simplicity but most of all remember to make the main thing the main thing: Product protection.

The circular economy is so cool at the moment and I welcome this. If it changes minds and hearts that’s a good thing. Just as long as it isn’t simply a fad.

Mark Shayler is an environmental and innovation consultant who works with companies including Samsung, Coca Cola, Ecover, RS Components, Proctor and Gamble, and loads of great small companies. For further information please visit


Stephanie Cornwall
Stephanie Cornwall