Across the globe, two billion tonnes of waste are generated annually, according to The World Bank. Earlier this year, Avery Dennison teamed up with the Future Laboratory to compile the Zero Waste Futures report. The report sets out to provide brands and retailers with a strategic framework for action, and outlines a set of key drivers that will help accelerate solutions for a zero-waste future and the transition to a circular economy.

Elisabeth Skoda speaks to Tyler Chaffo, Global Sustainability Manager, Avery Dennison, to find out more about the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

There’s a lot of work going into sustainability, recyclability and reducing waste. Despite all this, looking at statistics, waste volume is still going up. Do you have any thoughts on why this is?

In the US, since 1950, only 9% of our plastics have been recycled. There are many reasons why that is. Brands are trying to create more circular, recyclable packaging, but a more holistic approach is needed, focusing on consumer education and supporting infrastructure for waste sorting systems. I think it’s important to focus more on the value of waste, not just from an economic, but also from an environmental standpoint. From a short term perspective, COVID-19 has had a massive impact. There was a notion of going from a reusable package back to single-use for safety reasons. We’ve also seen, in the area of logistics, prices for shipping pallets and corrugated packaging skyrocketing, which has had a big impact on sustainability. The sheer amount of packaging that was consumed, and the big shift towards e-commerce, created a huge amount of waste that couldn’t be supported by traditional recycling streams.

I think that consumer education is fundamental for getting this resolved. If consumers understood the true impact when they source a product, they would be able to assess the situation better. Of course, convenience is great, but a lot of times, convenience, or innovation for convenience isn’t necessarily best for the planet.

A recent study by Pennsylvania State University says that if consumers understand the recycling process and know what their product is going to be recycled into, they’re more inclined to recycle. Around 80% do if they know and only 50% do if they don’t know. Consumers have to be incentivised, and Avery Dennison has several partner collaborations around consumer engagement and smarter recycling, allowing consumers to scan a product and digitise the deposit they get. They know that they can recycle the product and where to recycle it. It’s important to make the process as frictionless as possible.

What steps does Avery Dennison take to make sure that its labels and other packaging products are actually being recycled?

This is a major focus point for Avery Dennison. Within the company, one of our key sustainability goals is reducing the waste we send to landfill from our sites, and increasing recycling of excess materials, starting with how we make our products and extending into the ecosystem. The company joined with other leaders in the pressure sensitive label (PSL) industry to form the Circular Economy for Labels (CELAB) consortium. The consortium aims to offer solutions and provide education throughout the industry to enable matrix and release liner recycling, bringing together competitors and end users that use labelling materials to create an ecosystem to recycle the liner and basic matrix.

The other part is to create products that are recyclable. With RFID, there are multiple components, and we spent a lot of time understanding what happens with our products within the recycling infrastructure and making sure they don’t disrupt what they’re applied to. We set out to recycle our inlays, which contain different materials, and we will be announcing something within the next month to surround that recycling certification we have for one of our products. The goal for us is to have recyclable products across our applications, whether it is for an apparel application or a consumer packaged goods application, making sure that all our products are recyclable, and also looking at how we can use our products to enable better recycling and sortation. 

There has to be a balance between the functionality of packaging and its role to reduce food waste. How do you think this balance can be achieved?

How do you prevent waste without having too much packaging or the wrong type of packaging? We reduced a lot of our food waste when plastic was invented. Now we have a lightweight material that prevents food waste and spoilage, but we have too much of it. It’s about finding the right balance. For example, there are different life cycle assessments that have assessed the carbon footprint of a wrapped vegetable vs one not in packaging. Interestingly, the wrapped one can have a lower carbon footprint since it keeps the vegetable fresher for longer versus a high spoil rate for one that’s non-packaged. Food waste is doubly problematic, as it emits methane. People talk about carbon dioxide more, but methane is a big issue as well. It’s about finding the right application for packaging and using it in a way that offsets its impact. All packaging has an impact, but the positive outcomes have to outweigh any negative ones. That should be the intent in packaging. Obviously, more reusable and refillable packaging is key to the equation, while single use does of course have a role to play. It’s about really identifying different solutions for different products and applications. 

Legislation plays a key role in packaging sustainability. What new legislation would you like to see to boost chances for a zero-waste future?

A lot is happening in this area. In Europe, there is the EU’s Green Deal, and all of the extended producer responsibility laws that are coming with it. We’re starting to see that in the US as well with our EPR laws, which around twelve states are considering. Regulations do have a role to play, as well as a mix of the public and private sector solving these problems. Part of the solution will be to incentivise the brands that make the products as well as having the infrastructure to support it. In the US, there is a need for more legislation to improve and standardise product packaging. Setting clear targets around greenhouse gas emissions and tying those to waste could be another solution.

You touched upon collaborations. Could you give me a couple of examples of collaborative processes?

Collaborations across the entire value chain and sometimes even with competitors are key. One example is a digital link project with a multinational consumer goods company and one of the world’s largest retailers to create a standard traceability platform to increase traceability, waste reduction and check authenticity. We also work with brands, specifically around applications and product use cases, which we look to extend. One of those is Club Zero which has a system for reusable coffee cups. Avery Dennison helped to provide some of the technology behind the system and will continue to work on reusable packaging alternatives. We’ll be launching a research paper soon about a project we did with a university in the US to show how RFID can enable more dynamic pricing to reduce food waste.

What role can material innovations play when it comes to achieving the zero-waste future goal?

Our first sustainability goal is to create products that enable a circular economy. It’s about creating products that are designed for circularity, have increased recycled content, and a reduction in materials. All these things come together so that products can be more circular, and reduce waste, starting with the materials we use, such as FSC paper and increasing recycled content. We’re also looking towards the future and are exploring bio-based materials. Beyond materials, how digital ID technologies such as RFID and NFC are manufactured also makes a big difference so that less waste is created. For example, Avery Dennison recycles excess aluminium during manufacturing and utilizes lower carbon footprint manufacturing methods.

What role can innovations like Avery Dennison’s atma.io system play in a zero-waste future?

The intention of atma.io is to make the invisible visible. The idea behind it is to connect products, and to give everyday products a unique digital identity, and a digital twin, which provides the ability to unlock a range of other applications, like being able to track products and their carbon emissions throughout a products lifecycle and across the value chain, which helps brands to see where waste is occurring and take corrective action. atma.io runs on an open API-based platform, so it is open to anybody within the supply chain. Foundationally, it gives greater visibility, and it enables the circular economy. I can scan a product and I know where it comes from and what’s in it, and I know how it’s made, then when it’s reached its useful life, I can see what its value is on the resale market, or it can be upcycled. It also works in the food, beauty and pharma supply chain, when it comes to tracking ingredients and showing brands where waste is occurring. In short, it can increase the efficiency of supply chains and with that, you reduce waste.