What exactly does it take to create a circular economy? We look at the core principles of driving a new way to design, make, and use everyday products

Take, make, waste. That’s the conventional approach for manufacturing: take resources from the environment to make new products then throw them away after use. But this linear model is bad for the environment and bad for business.

Packaging plays an essential role in preventing food products from being wasted. But if it ends up in landfill, the materials go to waste – and so does the energy and effort that went into processing them.

In a circular model, waste is instead reused or recycled into new products. But circularity isn’t just about recycling. It’s also about using less material in the first place and making sure as much of that material as possible comes from resources that can be naturally renewed.

What’s the circular economy?

Put simply, the circular economy aims to turn waste into a resource. This circular approach isn’t new. It builds on the cyclical processes that can be seen in nature. When a tree loses its leaves, the nutrients are recycled to help new plants grow. And when it reaches the end of its life, the dead tree trunk creates a home for other organisms. Nothing is wasted.

The vision of a circular economy for industry was first put forward in the 1970’s by Walter Stahel, who went on to found a sustainability think-tank devoted to this topic. His idea was simple: to prevent waste by making existing products last longer and re-using them where possible.

More recently, the concept has evolved and gained traction with high-profile campaigns by Ellen MacArthur, a renowned sailor who was shocked by the vast quantities of waste she saw in the oceans. Now the established thinking on circularity goes far beyond recycling, emphasizing the need to design out waste and embrace the use of renewable resources.

This concept of the circular economy is now central to efforts by governments and industry to tackle the environmental impact of plastics and packaging in particular.

How do we go circular?

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation sets out three key principles to accelerate the transition to a circular economy. SIG supports each of these principles as part of its wider ambition to make a net positive contribution to the environment and society.

Principle 1: Design out waste

The first step in the circular economy is to use resources as efficiently as possible and minimise the amount of materials needed to provide the things people need.

This can mean different things for different industries. Making mobile phones smaller. Using fabric offcuts from the factory floor to make new clothes. Introducing a service to share a car rather than having one of your own. The principle is the same in each case: use less materials to offer the same – or improved – functionality.

For packaging, designing out waste means minimising the amount of materials needed to protect the product inside. SIG’s innovative RS structure has saved more than 4,850 tonnes of polymer since it was introduced in 2016 by optimising use of resources, while effectively preserving the food inside and further improving system stability for customers during processing.

Principle 2: Keep products and materials in use

Recycling plays an important role in the circular economy by reusing materials from products that are no longer needed and making them available to create new products. Like the plants in the forest recycling nutrients from leaves that trees no longer need, one industry can also recycle waste from another.

That’s why innovative companies are collaborating with other industries to find opportunities to put waste materials to good use. Interface makes carpet tiles out of discarded fishing nets. Timberland turns worn out tires into shoes. SIG uses wood chips and residues from the paper industry to make its beverage cartons, keeping valuable materials in circulation that might otherwise be incinerated for energy.

And, of course, many types of products and packaging can be recycled again after use. SIG carton packs are fully recyclable and the materials can be separated and recycled to make high-quality paper, board and other products.

But not all products or packages are designed to be recycled and, even if they can be recycled, the infrastructure may not be widely available to do so. Consumers also have a big role to play. If they don’t know what can be recycled or how, then recyclable products or packaging can end up in landfill simply because they’re not put in the right bin. For example, 40% of plastic packaging ends up in landfill globally.

SIG is working with partners to raise consumer awareness and improve infrastructure for collection and recycling of used beverage cartons around the world. Read about one such initiative in the Brazilian city of Curitiba.

Principle 3: Regenerate natural systems

The use of more renewable materials – together with a transition to renewable energy sources – is an important part of the circular economy to regenerate natural resources.

Unlike most packaging alternatives, beverage cartons are made mainly from renewable materials. This means our cartons are already contributing to the circular economy at the start of their life by supporting the regeneration of vital natural resources. Even as trees are cut to make the cartons, new trees are already regrowing to replenish them. SIG packs are also produced using 100% renewable energy.

Looking beyond circularity

The concept of the circular economy offers useful principles to support more sustainable consumption and production. But it’s important to understand the effect of each within the context of the overall environmental impact of a particular type of product or packaging.

Want to learn more about the role of recycling in the life-cycle impact of packaging? Look out for our upcoming Rethinking Recycling series where we will not only explore some of the common myths and misconceptions surrounding recycling but also its huge potential to keep more products and materials in use.  

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