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What is The Circular Economy?

As humans we adopt a linear economy model where we take a raw material from the earth, make something from it and then dispose of that item (take, make, dispose). Ireland is now transitioning towards a Circular Economy, how we design our packaging and the materials we select has never been more important. In a circular economy, growth is separated from the use of scarce resources through production models based on long life products that can be renewed, reused, repaired, upgraded or refurbished. Circular economy systems: keep the added value in products for as long as possible and aim to eliminate waste and keep resources within the economy when a product has reached the end of its life, so that they can be productively used again and again and hence create further value.

A transition to a more circular economy requires significant changes from product design to new business and market models, new ways of turning waste into a resource, to new modes of consumer behaviour.

This will involve innovation in technologies, organisation, society, finance methods. The EU’s Circular Economy Package (CEP) aims to help address these challenges in Europe and in broad terms it focusses on durability, repair, reuse and the sharing or leasing of products as a means to extend the use of products or their components for as long as possible. The theory being that by doing so you reduce both resource extraction of virgin raw materials and reduce residual waste.

Packaging in a Circular Economy

Creating a circular economy for packaging is about more than just the material selection, it requires fundamental changes to business models and how we use packaging. One of the key challenges is addressing the single use models we have created and ensuring that the alternatives used address some of the reasons those models exist (hygiene, safety, convenience). The Ellen McArthur Foundation suggests that replacing just 20% of single use plastic packaging for example would create an opportunity worth more than 10 billion US Dollars.

In order to achieve a circular economy we must take the opportunity to connect all stakeholders so that there is improved awareness of what increases or decreases the potential circularity of packaging. It is important to note that the EU’s Circular Economy Package recognises that we are unlikely to completely eliminate single use packaging for example during the packing of certain foods where food safety is a significant concern. This raises the continuing need for efficient recycling processes where reuse or repair is not a practical option.

However to achieve a circular economy we must challenge how we design packaging from both a business model and material perspective to ensure that we: maximise the chances of capturing packaging for either reuse or high quality recycling and have a material that can be recycled without significant technical challenges when we do capture it.

From a material perspective this is not as simple as just understanding the materials we use within a pack so that we can place a claim on the pack that it is 100% recyclable. It is about moving beyond that to understand the material combinations that are likely to create unfavourable conditions for the recycling industry during the sorting or reprocessing stages which can make the entire pack either very challenging to recycle or not recyclable at all. In fact material complexity is one of the key barriers to creating a circular economy and this is still a challenge for many polymer based materials in particular. However it is critically important that our decision making processes to increase packaging circularity, take into account the consequences of removing barrier materials in favour of others which may not be able to provide the same shelf life.

For more information on how your business can create a packaging for the Circular Economy view our Packaging Design Guide here. The Packaging and Design Guide outlines the plastic packaging categories under this new Repak Eco fee modulation structure, and lists the packaging items that are currently recycled and not recycled in Ireland. For any queries on this guide, please contact our Packaging Technology team at preventandsave@repak.ie

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