Better data will fast-track us to the circular economy

Greg Lawson, managing director of sustainable packaging consultancy Aura, discusses why driving the UK towards a genuine circular economy will only be possible if businesses make better use of real-time data when it comes to packaging.

Greg Lawson Aura Circular EconomyThe explosion of legislation in recent years around sustainability and recycling isn’t just about the short-term goals of cutting emissions and reducing waste – although both are certainly vital. The endgame has to be to move us ever closer to a true circular economy, where refurbishing, reusing, repairing and recycling are the norm.

The UK’s Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) legislation is a big step in the right direction as it replaces the previous Packaging Waste Regulations. Product packaging has long been scrutinised as one of the leading sources of waste, and brands have already invested millions of pounds in new and hopefully better packaging designs and materials.

Now, with EPR, there is even more impetus for them to continue that process. However, driving the country towards a genuine circular economy will only be possible if businesses make better use of real-time data when it comes to packaging – and don’t rely on retrospective decision-making and the all-too-common ‘packaging optimisation’.

The impact of live data

Reuse and, especially, recycling are actually hostage to data. All too often, products are the primary consideration when it comes to recycling and sustainability, and the boxes and bottles they come in are a secondary thought at best. They certainly don’t get analysed in real time, before the products are available for sale.

However, retrospective data or data collected at a later stage will only allow for packaging optimisation after the product is on the shelf. Any changes can take one to two years – sometimes even more – to implement. It’s the length of the product development process, and products or packaging sourced in places like Asia can add additional months of delay.

And yet, it’s become increasingly evident that brands and retail businesses need item-level data during the development stages of their products. It’s the only way to flag up ‘at-risk’ recycled materials ahead of any pending legislation and ensure compliance at a global level.

Bear in mind that EPR is only one of a raft of new sustainability regimes that have come into effect in recent years around the globe, and companies that sell in multiple markets need to know what is and isn’t a valid packaging strategy in all of them. What’s recyclable in Country A might not be in Country B – and for that matter, what’s recyclable in Glasgow might not be in Clapham.

The importance of clear communication

Another reason for better data is that effective recycling requires ‘one source of truth’ – a consistent platform that tracks every element of their packaging from beginning to end.

When they lack that one source of truth, brands end up adding paper labels that might make their plastic bottles non-recyclable, or not realise that the fact that fresh produce consumed over time (such as a cucumber) needs plastic to keep it fresh and paper alone isn’t good enough. What they might fail to understand is that product and packaging usually need to be designed together.

There’s also the fact that more sustainable packaging is as much about the carrot as the stick – consumers bored of greenwashing will welcome brands that are open and transparent about why they’ve switched to a new type of box and what that means in terms of better recycling. And once again, they will need the data to support and provide proof points for that decision.

The value of ‘upstream thinking’

A major element of better data comes from being proactive rather than reactive – using ‘upstream thinking’, the way that health officials in Norway famously focused on policies to keep people healthy rather than taking the ‘downstream’ US and UK approach of dealing with the sick.

Packaging is usually seen as the end of the product supply chain and it might be seen as something that’s ‘easier’ to manage retrospectively by fixing what’s wrong.  However, unbiased sustainability ratings based on regional requirements will educate suppliers during the specification process.

They can evaluate their packaging, and if it doesn’t meet the recyclable criteria, they can make different choices for recyclability and alternative material choices during the development stages.

Taking a whole new approach to the circular economy

It’s also worth bearing in mind that tracking sustainability and recycling data is something that most brands and retailers wouldn’t have even considered ten years ago, so for many it is an entirely new line on the P&L statement that will need to be budgeted accordingly.

What is without question is that the new line on the accounts needs to exist and the investment will be significant in order to future-proof your business and brand – and that businesses need to ensure they have a rigorous and data-driven approach to sustainability and recycling for both their products and what those items sit within. Otherwise, our slow transition to a circular economy will become even more sluggish.

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