What is the Circular Economy, and How Does it Affect Packaging?

What is the Circular Economy, and How Does it Affect Packaging?

The circular economy means designing things so there is minimum waste - during manufacturing, use, and then at the end of of the item's life. It firstly aims to increase the life of all products - including packaging - if possible, to prevent them becoming waste which needlessly uses Earth's resources and pollutes the environment. In this blog we will break down the circular economy, and particularly focus on circular packaging, especially in the skincare and cosmetics industries.

What is the Concept of the Circular Economy?

The circular economy is the opposite of the linear economy.

Wow, what an opening line. Let's break that down into some real-life words...

The linear economy is what usually happens at the moment - where raw materials are taken from the earth, used to create something, and then eventually chucked out as waste. For example, we extract crude oil from underground reservoirs, use it to make some plastic packaging, and then the end user throws that packaging in the general waste bin, and it ends up in a great big landfill heap. The whole concept of the circular economy is to prevent this waste from being produced.

To do this, we need to invest in a lot of research and development, so that products are originally made with the idea of long lifetimes, reuse, and recycling, in mind. There's also a huge need for a large transition from non-renewable energy to renewable energy sources.

What are the two main cycles of the circular economy?

The circular economy involves two main material cycles: the technical cycle and the biological cycle (groan... more 'fluffy' words). The technical cycle involves products that are not biodegradable, such as metals and plastics, and the biological cycle involves products that are biodegradable, like food or wood. Let's dive in further...

The Technical Cycle

When you look at skincare and cosmetics packaging, the items mainly fall into the technical cycle, although some new developments (more on these in a minute) means some of our packaging is now part of the biological cycle.

When we think about the circular economy, we might think of recycling - or even the 'three Rs' - reduce, reuse, recycle. However, in the technical cycle, recycling is actually the last resort. The first aims are to 'share' (think, a unisex product that the whole family can use, rather than each using a different product) and then to prolong (think, a bigger, better quality pack, that gives you more inside product compared to the amount of packaging used, while the pack lasts for longer). Recycling is a last resort because often some of the value of the product is lost. For example, a product like a foam pump could be disassembled and the appropriate parts recycled, but there's a lot of energy involved in that process, compared to keeping it in its original, useful state (pumping foam!) for longer. However, recycling is definitely a valuable option - it's interesting to see what Ellen MacArthur has to say about it in this brilliantly clear video. So while the priorities are to extend useful life and then to reuse, you can see why there is value in recycling and in PCR (recycled) plastic packaging - especially given that many systems are already set up to cater for it, and that consumers widely recognise some plastics and other materials as being recyclable.

The Biological Cycle

More and more packaging now falls into the biological cycle, as research leads to exciting new developments of biodegradable packaging. Composting is very important in the biological cycle, because it eliminates waste by turning into useful products like compost. Biodegradable bioplastics, such as sugarcane bioplastic, can be used in packaging, and then when the user is finished with them, they can be biodegraded and used for agricultural purposes. Another plus of biodegradable materials is that biogas is emitted when they are composted, which can be used to create energy in a circular economy.

The one thing to balance against this is that we don't have all the answers yet in terms of biodegradable materials - they need to last long enough to protect the product, which often means that you would need to use a material which biodegrades only under specific, industrially-controlled conditions. Consumers are then unsure what action to take when it comes to end-of-life, as it is not recyclable, and neither will it turn into compost if they just bury it in some mud. Truly compostable materials could come closer to giving us the answer - but only if they can be guaranteed to have a long enough life to protect what's inside them, before they start to break down! What a complex challenge.

The Circular Economy

With credit to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, here is a beautiful diagram showing all the thinking involved in the two main aspects of the circular economy.

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So How Does Packaging Need to Contribute to a Circular Economy?

In a circular economy, packaging should always be designed carefully, to prevent it being wasted. This means that each piece of packaging should be specifically developed to be part of a system, such as a refill or a composting system.

This is why we are seeing an increasing number of beauty and cosmetics brands like The Body Shop embracing the refill concept.

Packaging should be made to last for longer, by using more durable materials. However, as well as being designed to have a long life, they also need to be developed so that they can either be refurbished or recycled once they can no longer be reused. This means the use of materials like glass or polypropylene, which can be made into very durable products, but can also be recycled when they can no longer be reused.

Wait... surely this is simple? Why have we not just banned plastics long since? We wish it was this simple, but it's not... to quote the interesting work done by Ellen MacArthur foundation, "banning plastics can be a solution, but substitution of plastic with other materials can lead to significant negative, unintended consequences, such as increased carbon emissions, water use, and food waste". So true - we often forget the benefit that packaging brings, through protecting products that would otherwise go to waste themselves. That said, glass and aluminium packaging have huge benefits - if they do have to be recycled, they both fall into 'closed-loop' recycling (meaning they're made back into the same or similar products again) as they don't lose any of their original strength or quality through the recycling process. Food for thought.