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April 11th, 2021

Innovate Packaging towards Circular Economy

The History of Packaging goes back to 5000 BC where nomads used natural materials like plants, clay, animal skin and wood for storage & transportation of food & tools. As humanity evolved from 3500 BC onwards, packaging also progressed with the invention of blown glass, wooden barrels for liquid & bulk storage, and from China the first use of paper for packaging was popularized. Closer to our modern timelines, the Industrial Revolution contributed towards the invention of plastics in the 1900 s, at which time packaging also started to play the role of branding the company’s name in bright letters.


The Benefit of Packaging has enabled contents of the product to move from production to consumption in a safe manner, helped elevate brands and provided supply chains & consumers with information. However packaging has also become ubiquitous & cheap, leading to unrestrained over use & reckless disposal habits. For plastic packaging in particular this has led to a global backlash as 10% of the world’s plastic ends up in our rivers & oceans, the rest 90% largely ends up in landfills or incineration for energy production, and a very small amount actually gets recycled back into other plastic products or into the same packaging.


Therefore there is a move towards Circular Economy that aims by 2050 to arrest the production of new plastic raw material from oil & gas sources and replace with renewable sources, and to meet the world’s growing need for plastic packaging by moving from a linear to circular economy. This is not just a question of introducing collection & recycling schemes, and changing corporate  & consumer behavior through movements, advocacy and legislation. It’s also an opportunity for innovation in rethinking what we want from plastic packaging. The reduce, reuse and recycle mantra has been around for a while, but how are FMCG brands actually aligning to Circular Economy remains at best a bit late to the needs of the planet or at worst ignorant to obvious problem we are facing.


Here are some strategies to consider while we wait for a common understanding of Circular Economy to take shape, FMCG brands can work with industrial designers and packaging manufacturers to redesign along the following lines

  1. REDUCE the amount of material that goes into serving the primary function of safe keeping the contents from production to consumption. Consider light weighting, value engineering to reduce or combine components of the package, use digital as a means to provide additional information instead of printing it all on the package.
  2. REUSE the packaging by designing additional functionality to be used after the packaging has served it’s primary function. Consider how the bottle, cup, tub, pail or jerrycan could serve another purpose and design that functionality into the package design. Most of the times there is little to no marginal cost for this except the one time cost for designing & new molds and decoration plates/cylinders.
  3. RECYCLE the packaging by making it easier to be responsibly disposed, collected and recycled. Consider first & foremost to make the packaging 100% recyclable – ie. eliminate laminated materials and reduce mixed material components as much as possible. Then consider how to support segregated disposal, collection and recycling through the design & information on the package.


To conclude, packaging has been part of our evolution into safer & healthy human population, but like with everything else in life, too much of a good thing can be bad. If plastic packaging can be responsibly recycled back into the circular economy, it would use only 10% of the material & energy resources that was required in the first place to produce the plastic packaging. This is much lower than the 60% to 70% of the material & energy needed to recycle other packaging materials. So it’s up to each one of us to play our part and become the change that we want to see in our world.


Akshay Shah

Group Executive Director