Accenture and the academic community often collaborate to explore the trends, opportunities and challenges facing business leaders across industries. Recently, Accenture worked with Sundara Bhandaram while she was a graduate student at the Yale School of the Environment on a research paper entitled “Fiber-based Packaging: Opportunities in a Circular Economy.” In this blog, Accenture’s Amy Callahan and Bhandaram discuss the paper, which was written to assess industry efforts and provide insights about how companies can move forward. The full paper can be accessed here.
In recent years, the fiber-based packaging industry has made strides toward achieving circularity, and there are a variety of efforts underway. But there is still work to do—and now is the time to start doing it.
Today, the fiber-based packaging industry is seeing rising demand, but it is also experiencing decreasing margins and increasing calls for sustainability—all of which makes the industry ripe for circular-economy strategies.
There are several factors driving interest in circularity. These include the regulatory landscape, with growing requirements for recycling, increased waste disposal restrictions, and more and more local and regional bans on single-use products. In some areas, Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) policies hold manufacturers accountable for taking back their products from customers.
In addition to evolving regulations, there are a number of commercial and business-related drivers to consider. For example, greater circularity is likely to help companies reduce their environmental footprint. Circularity is also increasingly critical to attracting employees and investors—and to reaching customers, who often prefer brands that meet their social and environmental expectations. And some circular strategies have the potential to create new sources of revenue. Altogether, circularity promises to help companies gain a competitive advantage and fend off new entrants to the market.
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Circularity is a natural fit for the fiber-based packaging industry. Progress is being made, and the way ahead is becoming
clearer—but work remains.
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Four strategies for the industry
In response to those business and regulatory drivers, fiber-based packaging companies should consider four strategies that can help them address inefficient resource use and improper waste disposal, and move ahead on the journey to circularity:
Resource recovery: While fiber-based packaging typically has high recycling rates, there is still room for improvement in terms of resource recovery. Packaging companies have focused largely on minimizing waste and water usage during production and designing products for efficiency and recyclability. They have also worked to increase recyclability, through, for example, the development of more fiber-based alternatives to replace single-use non-recyclable packaging.
While these efforts are important, they only address part of the resource-recovery process. Going forward, the industry needs to increase efforts to design for end-of-life recovery, drive the use of more recycled content without impairing product integrity, and draw on technology to sort and process highly contaminated materials.
Product life extension: This can be a challenge for an industry that provides a great deal of single-use consumer-product packaging. But companies can explore ways to design products for reparability and remanufacturing, or for reuse—creating, for example, reusable folding cartons. And the increased use of fiber-based packaging as an alternative to non-recyclable packaging, coupled with sound recycling practices, can help ensure that the fiber materials remain in use for a longer period of time.
Companies can also focus on industrial markets, which tend to involve less single-use packaging than consumer markets. Here, the packaging industry can develop services that collect and reuse products, or partner with industrial customers to create reverse logistics systems that can handle reusable/recyclable fiber drums, for example, or refurbish as well as recycle wooden pallets.
Circular supply chains: Circular supply chains can help reduce industrial waste and extend the life of materials. Establishing such supply chains is not easy, and by nature, they require collaboration across companies. Of course, the fiber-based packaging industry already relies on renewable raw materials, but there are still opportunities to increase circularity. In particular, the industry can explore the use of materials-exchange platforms. These platforms have the potential to support cross-industry collaboration and information sharing, enable company-to-company connections for reusing materials, and help lower transaction costs as companies work together to repurpose industrial waste.
Experience has shown that such collaborative platforms can raise concerns about the privacy of data and proprietary information. Thus, the future of these platforms rests on the integrity of the organization creating them. That means that industry trade associations and governmental agencies should get involved and establish trusted, open materials-exchange platforms.
Product-as-a-Service model: Here, manufacturers retain ownership of their products and provide them as a service to customers. The products are reused, with the manufacturer taking care of their distribution, maintenance and return, and thus last beyond a single consumption cycle. This model holds potential for products that tend to have short usage cycles and are single-use, such as fiber-based packaging.
Moving to this model will not be easy. Companies will not only need to create reusable products, but also establish maintenance infrastructures and reverse logistics systems that include the ability to sanitize products for reuse—all of which will require a significant upfront capital investment. Beyond that, it will require a fundamental shift in the current consumption model, with consumers forgoing ownership of products. Overall, the potential benefits of this strategy are significant, but it is also the most challenging of the four strategies. There are several efforts underway that will help test the viability of this approach.
As companies weigh these four strategies, it is important that they remember that circularity initiatives will not automatically have a positive environmental impact. Results will depend on the specific situation, and companies considering such strategies should perform thorough lifecycle assessments to verify any potential environmental benefits.
Overall, we see an industry that is pursuing circularity on several fronts—and doing far more than simply paying lip service to the issue. Certainly, there is still a long way to go, but the way ahead is becoming clearer. Circularity is a natural fit for the industry, which frequently points to its members’ sustainability initiatives as an argument against heavy regulation. By focusing on sustainable and efficient design, product life extension, and resource recovery and reuse, fiber-based packaging companies can find ways to limit waste, promote sustainable consumption and extend the longevity of their products—and win in the circular economy.
Special thanks to Accenture’s Lucyann Murray and Erik Norell for their help on this project.
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Managing Director – Lead, North America Chemicals and Natural Resources
Master of Environmental Management Graduate, Yale School of the Environment
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