07 September 2021

Let's get circular

By Trivium Communications
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It usually takes a while before new technologies, concepts, or ways of thinking mature to have a real impact on our world. Sustainability is one of them. Sustainability has come of age and long gone are the days of greenwashing, feel-good activities, and half-measures. People see right through it and demand more.

COVID-19 brought the environment into even sharper focus. With pollution clearing in many cities around the world, sheep spotted venturing into villages quieted by isolation measures, and birdsong intensifying just about everywhere, people saw what our environment could sound and look like. On the flip side, more extreme weather events like wildfires and heat in North America and the recent torrential rains and flooding in many parts of the world, people are starting to feel the awesome impact the environment can have on our lives.

I believe people around the world are ready for big changes and do what it takes to reduce our negative environmental footprint.

What’s the problem?

Our environmental impact is felt in pretty much every facet of our lives, but packaging makes our effect very visible. In the 2021  Trivium Packaging  Buying Green Report, 73% of 15,000 consumers like you and me from around the world said they were willing to pay more for eco-friendly packaging. We want to do the right thing. The problem is, we don’t make it easy for ourselves to do the right thing.

Recyclable vs circular

It’s easy to think that “recycled” or “recyclable” are binary terms. A material can be either recycled or not, right? In theory, most materials can be recycled, but in reality, the picture is quite a bit more nuanced. Some materials, like plastics, deteriorate when they are recycled and can very often only be recycled 2-3 times before ending up on a landfill or in an incinerator. Other materials, like steel, aluminum, and glass, are at the other end of the spectrum and can be recycled forever. That’s a massive difference! It’s the forever part that makes a material circular as opposed to “just” recyclable.

Mixed or composite packaging (packaging that is made from layers of different materials bonded together) is very often difficult to separate into its individual component materials in order to recycle. That means each material in the packaging may be technically recyclable, but as a whole the packaging is only fit for the landfill.

We’ve done a good job of highlighting the importance of recycling. Now it’s time to step up to circularity and ensure that materials stay in the loop and not simply recycled once or a handful of times. That means thinking differently and making the right material choices at the very beginning.


Even though most people understand the importance of recycling, the infrastructure is not always in place to convert people’s values into the right behavior. Let me give you an example. My parents-in-law live in an area where curb-side recycling pick-up is lacking. They want to recycle, but are simply not in a position to haul big containers of recycling to a collection area that is miles and miles away. That’s why I bring back home bags of sorted recyclables after every visit and recycle it in my area where the infrastructure is better. It’s not rocket science. If we want people to do the right thing, we need to make it easy.


The infrastructure doesn’t just need to make it easier for you and me to drop off bags of recyclables, but it also needs to efficiently process the recycled material and quickly get it back into the loop. In many places today, materials difficult to handle (very often mixed material packaging) need to be transported over long distances to be able re-processed. Given the resulting energy costs and additional emissions, nobody would blame you for arguing it defeats the purpose of recycling in the first place.


If the nuances of recycling wasn’t difficult enough to get our heads around, according to Ecolabel Index there are over 450 environmental labels currently in use in 199 countries and 25 industry sectors. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this causes consumers to often misunderstand, overlook, and potentially even mistrust the sustainability credentials of ecofriendly products. Packaging World reports that, in the United States, 38% of consumers stated they have “no idea” which recycling numbers printed on packaging are associated with easier recyclability. The lack of simple and universal labeling standards in combination with messaging overload make it difficult to do the right thing.

What’s the solution?

It’s easy to point out problems, so let’s talk solutions.

Simple and complete communication

As I mentioned in the beginning, consumers are smart and are demanding better communication from companies. Let’s make sure that happens. Companies in the packaging industry (that’s my industry) as well as the companies we serve, need to step up and dare to provide the full story. We can’t stop when the story becomes inconvenient, difficult, or when it doesn’t fit our corporate messages or the compartmentalized interests of an industry. With more holistic communication, we can make better packaging decisions and use materials for the purpose they are best suited.

As argued by the Raconteur, the packaging industry needs to take ownership of its own sustainability story. That means informing our customers about the full circular lifecycle effect of the materials we represent. To enable customers to make more informed decisions, we need to provide them with data showing the strength of the recycling infrastructure, the recycling viability and rates of the materials, and their real circularity. We need to shift the thinking from a linear and even recycling economy to a circular economy. Factors like protection, preservation, and product waste also matter. The discussion cannot be just about the cost that will hit a customer’s income statement, but about the full circular cost of the packaging that hits all of us and the world we have to live in.

Consumer communication isn’t something that comes naturally to a lot of business-to-business companies, but I believe there is a need for us to step up on this front as well. As you would expect, I am a big proponent of using metal packaging. I’ll be the first to say that metal isn’t perfect for everything, but it offers outstanding circular economy benefits and is a real (even the best) alternative for many consumer products. That’s a message that is new to many, if not most, consumers. I have even been able to give my wife an a-ha moment or two when I talk about how metal stacks up to other packaging materials in terms of recyclability (it’s hard to compete with forever), circularity, and protection. We have the data and knowledge, but we need to get better at communicating that simply and honestly to end consumers like you and me. Informed consumers will demand more sustainable packaging solutions.

Dare to think and act differently

To make the right packaging decisions, we need to recognize that not all materials are created equal, but that there is a role to play for most materials. That role, however, may be very different than what is today. @Stuart Landesberg argues for less single use plastics in consumer packaged goods in a recent Fast Company article, and I see from personal experience how emerging brands in the beverage and health and beauty sectors are making different packaging decisions and are incorporating packaging in their business models.


This is not as easy as it sounds. It’s downright difficult to change how we do business, how we make cost/benefit analyses, and how we calculate profit. It’s even more difficult to change consumer behaviors and expectations. On the plus side, there is clear evidence that we are ready for a change. Over the past decade, we have seen massive business model transformations within travel and transportation and customers have adapted surprisingly quickly. When it comes to packaging, Trivium’s Buying Green Report shows that people around the world are environmentally aware and want to put values into action. The time is right, but businesses need to truly work together with common goals to make sure change happens.

Call to action

I know it sounds like a tired cliché that says nothing, but we need to work together to make packaging truly circular and sustainable.

Brands, dare to make tough choices that make circular sense.

My colleagues, find solutions that make it easier for brands to make circular packaging choices.

Consumers, go beyond the recycling icon and demand change.