Living in a material world

Published: 10-May-2023

Mass consumption's rise has led to waste on a previously unimaginable scale. Kathy Illingworth, Head of Sustainability and Consulting at Ecoveritas, takes a look at what can be done to counter this

Hooked on convenience, disposability, fashion, and constant technological change, mass consumption's rise has led to waste on a previously unimaginable scale. We have slowly realised that it never pays to take man made substances for granted.

Rarely are there opportunities to make a real impact and help our planet. Waste is an environmental and economic harm that ordinary people have the power to change – and prosper in the process.

But we have reached a turning point, and the stakes are high. Will we succeed in halting climate change and biodiversity loss and finally secure health, wealth, and wellbeing for all? Ultimately, that will be contingent on our ability to move from a 'sell more, sell fast' mindset to a bubbling community of change agents and open-minded people determined to make a difference.

Breaking down the barriers to adoption

You cannot claim to care about the environment if your business is responsible for excessive waste.

As a business, you have a strategic decision to make about the source of your packaging:

  • Disposable packaging from the linear economy
  • Second use packaging from the recycling economy
  • Sustainable packaging from the circular economy

If you want to do your best for the environment, there's only one economy you should buy into – the circular economy. The part where we turn an important but neglected part of our culture - the trash it produces - and find an unexpected wealth of meaning.

Rather than tune out or hope someone else will create the best options, we should use passion, purpose and a clear plan to move forward. And although it may sound strange, there could be some merit in starting at the end, unravelling a product's afterlife and systematically evaluating it for new opportunities.

At Ecoveritas, we proactively work with brands and packaging manufacturers to balance the technologically viable with economically sustainable solutions

Packaging is a classic systems problem. Interventions such as biodegradable or compostable packaging, whilst exciting on paper, can conflate several waste streams and hinder outcomes.

Uncontaminated waste can be recycled depending on the availability of local facilities, with paper, plastics, glass, and metals often recycled directly. Contaminated waste is usually incinerated or otherwise taken to a landfill if incineration is not possible.

Many pharmaceutical companies are achieving reduced packaging by lessening their weight. Modern plastics can be made thinner while maintaining strength, and advances in structural design thanks to computational engineering methods allow new techniques that use far less material while retaining the function and purpose of the packaging.

With many restrictions limiting the use of recycled materials in pharmaceutical package production, manufacturers are encouraged to consider the recyclability of their product at the end of its life. And that's why there is a push to design systems that simplify the material mix and push producer responsibility in packaging.

Prescribing more sustainable packaging

In recent years, the sustainability of the pharmaceutical industry has received growing attention from consumers, policymakers, and organisations. Concerns about introducing sustainability practices into developing new delivery systems, new products that pose a lower environmental risk, waste recycling, reducing water usage, greener manufacturing methods, and recyclable packaging have intensified attention on this topic. 

The pharmaceutical industry's innovative power and the importance of sustainable and reusable drug containment and delivery solutions remain high on the agenda. The shift in packaging priorities of the sector is visible.

Packaging producers will be expected to bear the full net cost of the packaging they place on the market. But this is complex and data-intensive work

And for a good reason. According to the Journal of Cleaner Production, the pharma sector generates nearly 55% more toxic carbon emissions than the automotive industry, and plastic packaging solutions can be considered among the prime accelerators of this issue.

But the challenge is not as simple as just switching materials. Particularly as the industry is caught balancing industry regulators' health and safety demands and meeting the needs of today's eco-conscious consumers.

Regulators and governments are beginning to acknowledge the seismic nature of this shift. They hope to alleviate as many obstacles as possible for companies trying to invest their resources in more sustainable packaging.

Self-awareness is the meta-skill of the 21st century – and with data, you are one step ahead, letting you act decisively when a trend is gaining momentum.

Businesses are dealing with the increased workload of complying with numerous pieces of environmental legislation, increased compliance fees, and sustainability targets - all on top of their core business responsibilities. They want to be compliant and reduce their environmental impact, but at the same time, they also need to ease the admin and cost burdens of doing so. Seeing what's on the horizon provides valuable insights to businesses, insights that can shape environmental and commercial strategies, guiding sound business decisions.

The call for companies to act responsibly and adopt more sustainable practices in sourcing, manufacturing, packaging and distribution processes will only intensify. New data types need to be governed and managed to meet that call.

Ecoveritas is for those staring at the overwhelming mass of data and thinking: this is hopeless. Businesses often have access to an avalanche of material, but none is operational. We can break any future transition down into its constituent parts and present them in a way that makes sense.

Our tools allow for detailed interrogation. They can connect waste, sustainability actions and finance at a system-wide level. They see what materials and activities drive packaging waste and the effects of reducing them.

A new era of packaging legislation

With new EPR regulations across Europe, plastic taxes now in force, and deposit return schemes for drinks containers, packaging producers will be expected to bear the full net cost of the packaging they place on the market. But this is complex and data-intensive work.

Packaging design, sustainable materials, packaging formats, labelling requirements, recycled content, recyclability, and Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) fees are only some of the high priorities for the businesses on our platform.

From the perspective of designers and entrepreneurs, once a product has been designed, produced and sold, it disappears beyond the newness horizon.

And every decision has a consequence. This is why we never examine the sustainability benefits of packaging in isolation but examine the broader picture. So we can measure and compare the sustainability performance of different packaging designs. Our goal is for all our customers to have a crystal-clear view of the circularity performance of their packaging and can make informed decisions on which designs meet their objectives most.

Instead, businesses make do with conflicting and incomparable data about measurable circularity progress. With companies largely determining their metrics and successes, achieving circularity, particularly in packaging, has fast become a self-serving effort.

Strategies to reduce the environmental impact of packaging should be a top priority for everyone

At Ecoveritas, we proactively work with brands and packaging manufacturers to balance the technologically viable with economically sustainable solutions that will be part of meeting our materials circularity challenges. And that's exactly why our tech platform bridges the gap between compliance, consumerism and community all in one place.

The pharmaceutical packaging sector is undoubtedly very specific and needs extra attention in promoting circularity, as health, and safety is the primary decision-making motivator. Legislation, a lack of information or interaction between stakeholders and rigid practices can, at times, represent blocks for a more circular product design. 

The challenge we face is finding different perspectives, which may be unusual for business development and then seeking fresh design concepts to match.

Strategies to reduce the environmental impact of packaging should be a top priority for everyone. And if you tackle things correctly, then packaging policy, true sustainability and planet-saving decisions are an opportunity - not a cost.

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