The 3 high stakes to drive circular packaging solutions

· A Franco-Canadian perspective ·

Co-authored by Anne-Laure Bulliffon (founder of Profil’Pack in Montreal and Albumine in France) and Colienne Regout (founder of Look4loops in Vancouver), both members of Circulab Community

In recent years, a hunt for plastic packaging has been openly declared worldwide by angry citizens and NGOs to tackle waste and ocean pollution! Several countries are legislating to force product manufacturers to eliminate, reduce, better recycle, or even reuse them.

Tomorrow’s packaging will have to be “circular” or it will not be. So what are the 3 high stakes for designing circular packaging solutions?

Euro-Canadian panel packaging

This article was inspired by the contribution of 6 panelists, experts from the packaging sector in Canada and Europe, at the roundtable on the topic “Packaging, the best starting point to more circular products?” recorded on 15 December 2022 in the framework of the World Circular Economy Forum.

1. What is hiding behind your whole packaged product value chain?

Throughout our years of experience in packaging and circular economy, we noticed too often a tendency to shortcut solutions! Indeed, whether it is motivated by real values or greening marketing, some alternatives have been brought as magical solutions, while forgetting about the overall impacts induced by the packaging.

Material alternatives, the silver bullets solutions?

As a result, one of the first points we find important to raise is to be careful about false good solutions. To illustrate that, at the Euro-Canadian Roundtable, all the panelists agreed that focusing exclusively on materials equates to missing the point completely

Valerie Langer, Fibre Solutions Strategist at Canopy, set the tone: 

“I would say a very dangerous, damaging perception that the solution is paper. Because the shift from plastics has been over to paper on many, many large companies. So, if we are actually going to address the issue around packaging the idea of the holistic way to address it has not landed yet”. 

Therefore, we recommend being careful about falling into the trap of plastic bashing! Shifting packaging material to another one could, in some cases, just bring at risk to shift from one problem into another. 

Jean-François Guillerez, Packaging science Professor at Conestoga College, adds: 

«Plastic is bad because it would  end up in the ocean with the turtles. So the paper is seen as “not too bad”: it’s actually a natural product. So, let’s use paper! And people stop there. And I think they need to realize that, well, paper does have an impact also on the environment.»

But, what is this holistic approach we are talking about? 

In a nutshell, it consists of taking into account all the steps of the packaging value chain from the very beginning of the life cycle of its components to its «end of life» or «new life» after its initial use. It then seems obvious that as soon as you modify a part of your packaging, the ripple effects it induces are inevitable. So, breaking down the steps is essential!

Value Chain Canvas - Circular design tool

If we look upstream, the selection of material is, for sure, one important step. But it can’t go alone without a good design approach… which can be called ‘ecodesign’. In other words, it is about rethinking packaging to reduce its footprint while extending its life – or to prepare it for regeneration – thanks to reuse, deposit, recycling, or composting, for example.

Geneviève Dionne, the eco-designer and Circular Economy director at Éco Entreprises Québec, highlighted that reality: 

«We have to stop fighting against material and have a discussion of the use of that topic of material and how to close the loop. […] We are dealing with so many different types of materials, and materials that are laminated, that are glued, that are fixed together. That’s the big challenge. As an industrial designer, I challenge the students and the company to be sober when they think about their packaging and their material and to try to simplify.»

Simplifying to facilitate recycling; or make it so convenient for reuse that it multiplies the life cycles of the same item. This last point is entirely of Jonne Hellgren’s opinion (the CEO and co-founder of RePack): 

«If the packaging is returned several times, then no recyclable renewable material can compete with that.»

2. Who are your key stakeholders to regenerate packaging life?

Is the consumer a reliable game-changer?

Here we are, the packaging has reached the hands of the so-called ‘consumers’. It actually even doesn’t stay long in those hands as they buy the packaged product for its content. As a result, they will get rid of the packaging more or less quickly. And, even if the major part of companies still tends to forget that the packaging journey doesn’t end there and disappear as if by magic, it is important to remember that packaging has only made half of its life cycle at that stage. 

So it is tempting to put a lot of hope in this pivotal actor (without consumer, no consumer packaged goods). Usually, the end user behavior is capturing all the attention to make the life extension of the empty packaging happen; including processes like cleaning, disassembling, refilling, tacking back, and so on. 

One might think that it is the “consumer” who is slowing down in the face of the efforts, as he or she must integrate the deposit or refill of packaging into his or her daily habits.

Speaking of which, according to Valerie Langer, Fibre Solutions Strategist at Canopy, we failed to change consumer behavior for several reasons. So, here is her strategy if we really want to give the system on-a-loop a chance to succeed:

«We have concentrated at changing the behavior of a few thousand people whose decisions affect what everybody else in the world buys. Because, then, the consumer doesn’t have to make the choice. The consumer gets the better option, the lower carbon, the lower toxicity, and the reusable package because it’s the decision makers at a different level. […] I think focusing on the smaller number of people whose decisions affect the larger number of people rather than trying to change every consumer’s behavior.»

packaging grocery shopping

As a perfect segue, Jonne Hellgren, the CEO and co-founder of RePack, explains that it was a big changing paradigm when they figured out how to adapt their offer to the warehouses, instead of putting mainly the spotlight on consumers: 

«The real end user [or the key user] – we now think – is the warehouse!  If the warehouse doesn’t like reusable packaging, it never reaches the consumer. […] So, in every design, and especially when it comes to reuse, who is really the end user (or the key user that reaches the market) is not always obvious

For sure, the logistics stake has the power to add – or bring down – a lot of value to packaging and its product. And this is not limited to a particular case! Valerie Langer, Fibre Solutions Strategist at Canopy,  reminds us: 

«Much larger carbon footprint is coming from what the manufacturer ships into the warehouse, and then repackages from that box into the box that goes to the retailer or into e-tail»

What if reverse logistics benefits would be a way to enroll more players in the loops? 

Valerie went on with an existing practical case study about a major retail brand that redesigned its shipping box very efficiently:  

«They changed the design of their box so that it crushed less and was easier to unfold and refold. And they reduced their total warehouse to retail boxes by nearly 80% in the first year of trialing this in one country. They have now spread it all of their operations internationally because it’s so much cheaper: the first trial saved them 14 million in boxes in the first year. […]  The cost factor can be flattened out with the conservation of materials used as well.»

This success story isn’t isolated, Arnaud Lancelot, who built the whole business model of his cosmetics brand Cozie on refillable packaging and deposit, shares his field experience: 

«Inflation puts a very strong pressure on prices while purchasing or restocking  packaging: something like 30-40% sometimes. While I cleaned my bottles the increase on prices this year was around 3%. So you have a 40% increase for the linear economy, 3% only for the circular economy. So that’s a strong incentive and it’s shifting the economics from one to another. […] And […] brands have a strong shortage for procurement because of the international mess. And it’s not an issue also with a circular economy, we have our stock of bottles and jars on the market that we retrieve to get reused again and again.»

Look4Loops Circular Jar exemple

This goes hand in hand with the global energy crisis and its major impact on the production prices of materials such as glass, plastic, and even cardboard, which have more than doubled in just one year! Designing for recycling is not enough, both in terms of material availability and price volatility. But, as Arnaud commented on that: 

“The challenge now is to build strong systems to go circular with reverse logistics, with cleaning equipment, and so on. And there is a very strong approach that must be tackled at the industry level”

What if big players could induce stronger circular systems?

Our experiences in circular systems have shown us that even small initiatives can make big ripple effects because they prove it works and always have some impact on a wider ecosystem. But, in order to influence a larger spectrum of stakeholders, those changes have to scale up. That’s when replicability comes in. But to smooth processes and accelerate the transition, bigger players have to wake up and see their interest in acting as facilitators. We loved how Valerie exemplified that idea very practically:

“Warehouses are both decision-makers in the supply chain, but they are also responsive. If you have two or three major warehouses who will agree to get market share in reusable packaging, they will gain market share and it will be known quickly. Then you can mobilize the 100 big CPGs who say: we’re going to utilize those warehouses. You will see how fast the warehouses who lose business will change.”

Figuring out that we are on the same boat can help a lot, whether it is thanks to an economic incentive or regulations, for example. That’s what our third and last stake is about.

3. What if we foster more collaboration?

How the context could move the gears more efficiently?

In Canada, depending on what municipality you are based in, you can observe bans popping up in favor of reusables. There are no federal packaging waste management regulations, each province has its own Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) policies with financial incentives and local recyclability programs. 

At the same time, European regulations, in particular, are increasingly pushing companies to eliminate single-use plastic from packaging by 2040 and require all packaging to be recyclable by 2030. Despite the French law known as “AGEC ” transposed from the European directive which imposes 10% of reusable packaging by 2027, i.e. tomorrow in terms of R&D time for companies, the urgency of changing practices is still far from being established. 

Could we say that standardization and collaboration are complementary?

Despite the regulatory framework, there are also many specificities related to culture and geography to take into account. Jean François Guillerez who has a foot in Canada and in Europe sincerely thinks that:

«The first thing we need is to talk to understand other people’s points of view. Europe and Canada are very very different countries and have very different setups. […] The consumer is not the same. The geography is not the same. But there are some things that we can do together.»

Genevieve Dionne explained the stakes for a large country like Canada: 

“To begin, Quebec is a Province 5 times larger than France, with 10 times less population, then we have a lot of challenges with only the recycling system regarding all the complexity of the geography and population density. Then talking about the return system, it’s a huge challenge! That’s why I’m a big fan of collaborating on a deposit system because it has to be standardized everywhere if you want people to adopt it. In Quebec, we have a company that put on the market some reusable glass jars of milk with a deposit of $3 per bottle and, [despite this], only around 80% of bottles are returned. […] That company […] wants other companies to embrace this approach with the same type of jar to develop the system elsewhere where they cannot go.»

This type of collaboration to improve the return rate of reusable packaging is worth it! An LCA from Zero Waste France showed that 60%, is the minimum carbon footprint avoided by a returnable 75 cl beer glass bottle in a French region, in an approximately 200 km perimeter from the washing center. Beyond this distance, the transport distance for washing is the key constraint that can reverse the trend and cancel the GHGs emissions gains.

And because, after many cycles, even reusables are not eternal, or, just because sometimes the innovative solutions have to take another path, Annebeth De Witte, Packaging Consultant from CoPackx, highlighted: 

«It’s good to bear in mind that on whether something is recyclable ‘yes or not’ there’s a lot of work done on collaborating with the industry chain. […] There’s agreement on which materials we’re gonna focus on. For instance, in the flexible industry: we’re gonna make these and these materials recyclable. And there’s not a law, but it’s more like a collaboration commitment.» 

How to activate collective intelligence to rethink the system?

To make collaboration happen, stakeholders across the whole value chain must work hand in hand. In the Circulab community, we think it definitively requires collective intelligence to rethink systems to build «smart innovations» that are simultaneously viable, feasible, desirable, and circular! 

Circulab Smart Design

As consultants specializing in circular packaging solutions, we – Anne-Laure Bulliffon and Colienne  Regout – advocate packaging as a physical vehicle to bring the product into the circular economy.  And when we speak about collaboration, we are actually walking the talk, as we co-write this article and much more! 

Anne-Laure has developed, SAPPHIR3, a software to assess and compare several packaging solutions using a dozen indicators with a holistic eco-design approach that takes into account the industrial, geographical, users, and economic context. Anne-laure Bulliffon reminds us that:

“Stigmatizing packaging as a scapegoat for environmental impacts is counterproductive. Packaging exists and will always exist because it is above all a solution for preserving the integrity of its contents.” 

Evaluer et comparer vos solutions d'emballages ciculaires

As for Colienne Regout, she enjoys gathering the stakeholder’s expertise on the field as well as around the same table with interactive methodologies and tools to bring them into alignment. She also teaches processes to start with while creating your circular packaging solutions. If an online version meets your needs, the whole methodology is available under the «Develop circular packaging solutions» training at the Circulab Academy. And we encourage you to subscribe with colleagues to embrace the journey together.


Last but not least, she raises awareness thanks to her Unboxing Your Packaging podcast with the leitmotiv: 

«Popping packaging out of the box thanks to the shared experience of inspiring businesses and experts! This show aims to help you redesign, reuse and regenerate your packaging.»

If the quotes used in this article made an echo to you, please, listen to the full panel on Episode #32: Packaging: the best starting point for more circular solutions and products? and more.

Let’s conclude  

In this article, we have pointed out 3 high stakes to drive circular packaging solutions.

  • First and foremost, approaching packaging with a 360-degree view thanks to its whole value chain… and, consequently, avoiding any kind of silver bullets;
  • Second, involving and coordinating the right stakeholders that will act as circular levers… customers included but way more beyond as well;
  • And third, fostering collaboration… by creating collective strategy adapted to the geographical scope of product distribution.

However, as you will no doubt have understood, the subject of circular packaging solutions is complex to implement because it questions the practices of all the players in the value chain: whether it is the designers who define the shape and convenience, the engineers who select the right materials to best preserve the food and goods, the marketing department which seduces customers with its graphics and communication, the logistics services and distributors who offer storage space to collect and transport the packaging to various facilities, the public authorities who are legislating to accelerate the transition,. …and not forgetting, the customer-citizens, which we all are, who should reuse or give back packaging to the right place.

We have shown that thinking in loops could make large-scale savings in increasingly tense contexts, particularly in virgin materials supply. Short-circuiting the linear system brings a new semantic paradigm: we no longer speak of “end of life” but of “next life”. Why? Because it allows packaging life extension by returning many times into the same loop (which is the case for reuse) and reintegrates materials into other regenerative cycles (benefiting other sectors through recycling or composting).

Only a holistic and collaborative design approach will enable a real move towards more economical use of materials and longer life spans. The main obstacles of distance, economic costs, and citizen behavior will undoubtedly be overcome by a massive commitment from each of the stakeholders.

On that note, the Euro-Canadian panel ended on an open call to action:

«All of us have to be pushing at all points along the supply chain, from the design right through. It’s how we collaborate across. All of those pushes are very important. […] So, the question to all of you is: What have you done today to actually make a progress into circular?»

To this end, tools and collaborative methodologies are available to initiate circular strategies and facilitate the implementation of innovative and viable solutions.

Interested to learn how to develop circular packaging solutions?

Sign up for the dedicated course on Circulab Academy Globe-circular-economy

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