Our society today does not function without packaging. Goods are ordered and delivered from one side of the globe to the other. Produced at one time to be consumed at another. Packaging plays a crucial part in sustainability, by being protective and durable, making transports lighter while using as little material as possible.
Plastics as a material type excel in all these properties, which explains why their use has increased more than 20x in the last 50 years. However, the versatility and diversity of these materials make them very hard to keep circulating within the material system. This is the packaging dilemma.
Packaging provides large short-lived material flows that must become more circular in the future. In Sweden, consumers are generally good at sorting materials for recycling. But it is not the amount of material collected that creates circularity, but the amount of material that is actually recycled and becomes new products. The truth is that today only 16 percent of Swedes' plastic packaging is recycled, and even less on average within the EU.
In order for us to achieve the EU target of 55 percent recycled plastic packaging by 2030, the entire business model for packaging needs to be reviewed. The growth of packaging in recent decades indicates that waste risks increasing even if we increase the recycling rate. In 2019, RISE conducted a feasibility study on the circularity of packaging on behalf of Intressentföreningen Packforsk. It showed, among other things, that investments in material design for recyclability and recycling processes must be quadrupled to meet transitions and future legal requirements.
Successfully transitioning to a sustainable system for packaging requires innovation and business transformation beyond what the industry has ever done before. It is not comfortable, the opportunities outsize the costs and are available to those willing to leave their comfort zone and challenge status quo.
In order to achieve a sustainable material system, the virgin plastic input must be reduced. According to the report, this can only be done by implementing new circular business models and a transition to renewable materials.
The report Rethinking the packaging system has been produced by RISE and Intressentföreningen Packforsk in collaboration with Grow. It is supplemented by a technical survey of the innovation landscape in packaging and packaging recycling, and a literature review and trend analysis projecting potential developments and outcomes to 2030.
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