What’s the best way for companies to achieve true circularity? Collecting, analysing, managing, and acting on data should be front and centre in this context, says Sandy Dhesi, commercial manager at Ecoveritas.
Sustainability. From marginal concept to an idea that shapes everything from individual lifestyles, government and corporate strategies, and even national and international policy.
And is it any wonder? In the six years between headline-grabbing climate conferences, the global economy consumed 70% more than the Earth can safely replenish. An additional half a trillion tonnes of virgin materials.
It is less that nature is part of our economy, and rather than our entire economic system is a wholly owned subsidiary of nature.
In the end, growth that destroys nature will cease. Economic development that, by contrast, moves towards net zero greenhouse gas emissions and nature’s recovery is a very different prospect.
This is an unprecedented time in the packaging sector. And it’s time we lived by design and not by default.
Circular innovations are all around us. From renting a car on an online platform to recycling metals from an old smartphone, many of these day-to-day, resource-saving ideas are taken for granted. They are punctuation marks in the conversation of our lives – tools of convenience, just as they should be. But the systems, services, and products we have in place today did not just appear in isolation. Particular innovations had to happen to get us to where we are now.
The circular economy is all about systems, trying to draw together different subgroups of activities – materials, material security, supply chain risks, renewable energy – and bringing them together to create a joined-up conversation.
As well as being the right thing for a responsible business to do, we believe a focus on a circular economy and waste can bring opportunities to create new business models, drive innovation and respond to customer expectations.
Companies and brands are looking to align behind the principles of a circular economy to reduce the negative impact of their packaging, responding to consumer, regulatory, and internal pressures.
However, trying to balance making commercial decisions related to sustainability with sensitivities such as unit costs, reputational risk, product availability, customer demand, and product protection can become complex.
One of the most striking developments is how aggressively companies are moving to translate sustainable packaging goals into robust baselines and specific tactics to realise more sustainable packaging from ideation to commercialisation.
We will need policies to fix this broken system. Extended Producer Responsibility is designed to do this. This shifts the economic burden of plastic’s negative externalities to manufacturers, forcing them to pay or take responsibility for their product’s and packaging’s end-of-life. Currently, recycling is not economically viable – it is often cheaper to produce virgin plastic than to recycle. EPR fixes this by funding recycling.
It may sound daunting, but we know it can be done. EPR has existed for years across Europe, Canada, Australia and South America.
Data-driven decision making
Understanding how to respond effectively to these challenges is embedded in organisational digital transformation. For businesses to act, they must first understand and quantify their environmental impact.
Successful implementation of data solutions to tackle climate change will be determined by how organisations can collect, analyse, manage, and act upon their data in a timely fashion. These new challenges will require the use of brand-new data sets which have never been analysed in this way or collected for this use. It is a tough ask for many.
Data ingestion, storage and processing, represent yet another initial hurdle. These are not traditional data sets that have been used in other reporting. In many cases, they will contain internal and external data sets, so the lion’s share of the headache will come when attempting to make it into something useful and meaningful.
There must be greater clarity on the source of recycled materials and the environmental and social impact of the methods by which these materials were created, collected, and sorted.
The word is nearly ubiquitous: at the supermarket, we shop for ‘sustainable foods’ that were produced from ‘sustainable agriculture’; groups ranging from small advocacy organisations to city and state governments and the United Nations tout ‘sustainable development’ as a strategy for local and global stability; and woe betide the city dweller who doesn’t aim for a ‘sustainable lifestyle’.
Infrastructure significantly influences whether resources can be preserved to use again or whether they are lost forever. For the most part, it has been designed for and has perpetuated the linear economy, the system of take-make-throw. It is holding back the circular economy that all major political parties have said they want to develop for the future for the good of the environment and the economy.
Investment in transformation needs to refocus on upstream activities, business models and data and logistic systems targeted at reducing resource consumption rather than just recycling and energy from waste. More significant knowledge of current infrastructure and materials is needed to support this shift. The transition will continue requiring new data and metrics to enable public and private sector leaders to make the best decisions.
Reaching ambitious sustainability targets requires a granular level of detail, down to the amount of carbon emitted in each step of the production process. End-to-end visibility requires scale – a vast amount of data. Your tools need to be able to handle huge volumes of data seamlessly and be able to model them together for a unified data set.
Crucially though, you need auditability. Regulatory reporting is key to setting and achieving sustainability initiatives, and these reports must be accurate. Numbers don’t lie, and their accuracy will be vital to unwrapping the potential of sustainable packaging and waste management innovators and investors.
Imagine the future and fill in the gaps
To know we’re getting there, we need to measure circularity. This will help us develop a culture of innovation based on experience and data.
We must remake how we make things; measuring our individual and collective performance will be fundamental. With global collaboration to collect and share data, waste need not exist.
You’ll often hear us talking about creating circular products and packaging for a circular world. We aim to make reviewing, rethinking and redefining second nature. And part of our job in advancing that world is to talk about it, familiarise people with the concepts, and hopefully be a small part of shifting the way other people see the world.
We must embrace dematerialisation, rethink the ownership concept, and move from resource efficiency to resource sufficiency.