Topic 3 Innovation on packaging

Recycling is vitally important – but it is not the most appropriate solution to the challenge of plastic in our environment. Some plastic-reducing solutions will create totally new business models.

Biobased or compostable packaging are part of the solution. The scope for innovation is huge: refillable or reusable packaging, new formats, brand new materials, and even a return to familiar ones such as paper, glass or aluminum.

The “No plastic – Less plastic – Better plastic” framework

This framework outlines the approach on how to achieve commitments and guide innovation:

  1. “No plastic” is about thinking differently – using alternative materials such as aluminum, glass, paper and board where possible and removing plastic where it is not necessary.
  2. “Less plastic” is about cutting down how much we use in the first place.
  3. “Better plastic” is about making our products recyclable and eliminating problematic materials. Specifically, it’s about how we get recycled content into our packaging.

Source: ZERO Waste Europe

How can you be sure your empty plastic bottle remains in a circular economy when you’ve finished with it? One of the most obvious ways is to refill it – and this (sometimes deceptively) simple idea is at the heart of one area of innovation. Reuse model is the best way to reduce environmental footprint.

We need to develop new ways of consumption derived from the circular economy business model. What we call ‘refill/reuse’ is an alternative way of consuming that offers many advantages:

  • For shoppers, it means less waste – and the option to have higher-quality, even personalized packaging.
  • A business becomes able to offer more convenient models and more attractive packaging, there is an opportunity to provide a better shopping experience and it saves costs, particularly in terms of transportation.
  • Using no more than needed;
  • Using less of well-known plastic is a way to have a good overview of the generated impacts. It avoids unintended consequences when introducing alternatives materials;
  • Using less can be induced by a new design or a new way of packaging several products together.

Application of a lifecycle assessment approach will inform decisions when shifting to new design or alternative materials

Practical example: one 1.5 l soda plastic bottle has less environmental impact than two 0.33l plastic bottles. Even better: avoid serving individual bottles and prefer individual glasses filled from a large glass bottle with deposit or even from larger containers (draft beer is less impacting than bottled beer).

The “better plastic” aspect of the framework focuses on using recyclable or compostable. The “better plastic” aspect of the framework focuses on using recyclable or compostable solutions and eliminating problematic materials. The use of recycled plastic has increased significantly in the last year.

To use more recycled plastic and be both innovative and collaborative if we are to meet our ambitions.

It is therefore important to use recyclable & recycled materials from the start and to make them recyclable & recycled after use, while tackling wider infrastructural issues (such as local collection and sorting facilities) and building the technical and commercial viability to collect and reprocess these materials.

Various materials can be used to package goods as paper and carboard, plastic, but also compostable compounds, biobased materials including bioplastics, composites (made from layers of various materials like Tetra Pack or flexible packaging). CE is a innovation driver for the packaging industry: in terms of conception and composition, but also regarding the possibilities to reuse or recycle it, i.e. the popular concept of “cradle-to-cradle” — taking responsibility for the impact of a product, from the sourcing of its materials to its end of life.

The CEFLEX consortium is an example for flexible packaging: CEFLEX is a consortium which now consists of over 150 companies, organizations and associations across the entire value chain of flexible packaging including: raw materials suppliers, packaging converters, brand owners and retailers, producer responsibility organizations, collectors, sorters and recyclers, as well as other technology suppliers and potential end users of the secondary raw materials. Through collaboration, CEFLEX aims to make flexible packaging in Europe circular across the whole value chain by 2025.

Flexible packaging is made of flexible or easily yielding materials that, when filled and closed, can be readily changed in shape. It applies to bags, pouches, or wraps made of materials ranging of less than 0,1mm thickness such as paper, plastic film, foil, or combinations of these.

Flexible packaging is an important part of our modern world. It protects food and other goods and is generally made of different types of plastics but can also include other materials such as paper or aluminum foil.

For example, it ensures food products reach consumers safe and fresh, preserving nutrition, taste and quality. This versatile packaging also helps protect and preserve, reducing CO2 emissions associated with food loss.

Being very light and thin, flexible packaging can protect large amounts of products with far less material than alternative packaging. This makes it a popular and resource-efficient way to package goods, while also reducing the environmental impact of transportation.

However, the fact that it is light means it can easily be found back in the nature, carried by the wind. Because of its several layers, it is difficult to recycle each of its components.

The scheme below explains how to develop more sustainable flexible packaging. The same diagram could be use for other type of packaging than flexible packaging.

Source: (2020).

Here are the 3 conditions to succeed  in developing circular packaging:

1) Consumer packaging has to be designed to be recycled without compromising the delivery of the product for which it was designed.

2) The infrastructure and systems are to be in place for it to be collected, sorted and recycled back into usable materials throughout Europe.

3) All the actors in the value chain have to implement circular improvements including the end markets using these recycled materials.


This mean that for packaging as for other topics, succeeding in CE mean to think in a holistic way and not in a linear way. A tool to evaluate environmental impacts in this holistic way, throughout its lifetime from start to finish, is the life cycle assessment or LCA. That is with this way that the various way to package wine have been evaluated and compared.

Source: Achieving a Circular Economy: How the Private Sector is Reimagining the Future of Business (2015) U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation