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“Multilayer structures can’t always be recycled back into new packaging materials, especially for food packaging, but we’ve shown that they can be turned into materials for uses such as construction and furniture,” said Sarah Perreard, Virtuous Circle project leader. “In the South African project, demand and funding for affordable desks for schools made the collection and recycling viable. More broadly, however, there’s strong economic potential for recycling multilayer packaging into building materials. An additional advantage of doing so is that houses made from such recyclate can themselves be recycled, remoulded for another life, extending their environmental and economic value.”

So the idea is to illuminate new business models around the recycling of multilayer films – models that will require adaption based on regional market conditions and regulatory climates. “There’s no demand for plastic houses in Europe,” Ms Perreard remarked. “However, construction materials can be exported. We can certainly imagine a model whereby European waste is turned into a resource.”

The key is to have the conditions in place for the model to flourish. “For one thing, the processing technology used needs to be simple enough that ROI isn’t too far off,” Ms Perreard concluded. “Even more importantly, government would have to be talked into supporting changes in waste collection and recycling infrastructure.”

The bigger picture

Of course, in the broader goal of increased resource efficiency, it’s important to look at any supply chain holistically rather than fetishise one particular aspect of sustainability. Can there be contexts where landfill has a lighter environmental impact than recycling?

“We have an agreed ‘waste hierarchy’,” Paul Vanston observed. “Alongside that we have tools for digging deep down into assessments of environmental impacts across many aspects – energy, waster, materials use – not solely recyclability at any cost. Our belief is that recyclability, and recycled content, are good things to aspire towards. But, by way of a cautionary note, if recyclability is achieved at a greater environmental cost than originally thought (even setting aside financial cost for one small moment), then we have a duty to scrutinise our actions in accord with sustainable ‘One Planet Living’.”

Mark Greenwood placed the emphasis on ensuring quality within a closed loop system.

“One of the principal roles of packaging is to protect the product. If we don’t use enough material, and products become damaged, it has a negative environmental impact,” he said. “This is especially relevant in the context of the significant growth of e-commerce, with more complex supply chains and higher return rate of goods. Better, smarter packaging is the key to enabling a circular economy. A circular economy should be our overall goal, and corrugated packaging is an essential part of a closed loop recycling process that minimises waste. In fact, we can go from box-to-box within 14 days with our closed loop model. In this timeframe, our cardboard boxes are made, used, collected, recycled, pulped, pressed and made back into cardboard boxes again.”

Mr Vanston concluded:

“To quote WRAP’s Recycle Now campaign from ten years ago, ‘the possibilities are endless’ when it comes to managing how humankind chooses to live in a more sustainable way. Whether citizens are prepared to pay for enhanced environmental goals through either taxes or prices is less clear. I am hopeful that an upside from the current focus on the US President’s actions relating to the Paris Climate Agreement will be to embolden nations and citizens globally to act purposefully, speedily and with resolve on environmental issues – including sustainable consumption. To those ends, many global brands are leading the way with their delivered actions and commitments to do more.”