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The transition to a circular economy

As a result of years of focus on prevention and material reduction in packaging materials, fewer resources are used, less packaging waste is produced and the environmental impact per packaging is reduced. At the same time, the global demand for packaging materials continues to increase, which leads to more resource usage, more packaging waste and a higher environmental impact. The growth of market demand is expected to exceed the reduced environmental impact that can be realised with material reduction.

An answer to this dilemma can only be found in a circular economy, in which we treat material flows differently, develop product-packaging combinations in a different manner, and create new business models.

Since the early nineties, the focus when making packaging materials more sustainable has mainly been on prevention and reducing the amount of materials used. At the same time, the demand for packaging materials is growing as a result of increasing wealth and a growing global population. This means that the use of raw materials, the amount of packaging waste, and its environmental impact are increasing. 

Advanced packaging materials: often difficult to recycle

Increasingly advanced packaging materials are being developed in order to realise similar or even improved properties with less material, for example a higher oxygen barrier or improved processability. These are often complex materials made up of composite or multi-layer materials, which combine the positive properties of different materials. However, there is a downside to these materials. Because they are difficult or even impossible to separate into monomaterials, their recycling is both difficult and costly. In many cases, it is not yet possible to replace these complex materials with monomaterials. This is because the monomaterials available lack the right protective properties and for example do not prevent product spoilage effectively enough or because they are too expensive.

An answer to this dilemma can only be found in a circular economy, in which we treat material flows differently, develop product-packaging combinations in a different manner, and create new business models. This will allow us to compensate for the growing demand and create market value, without further depleting the available resources and putting an excessive strain on the environment.

To make it possible to move towards a circular economy for packaging materials, it is necessary for all parties in the value chain to collaborate closely. After all, the existing material chains and all spheres of influence, including processes and business and revenue models, must be taken into account.

The influence of packaging development

At the moment, packaging development often makes up just a small part of the total value chain. As the image shows, this chain runs from purchased packaging materials and semi-finished products from suppliers via the packaging process to the pallets loaded with packaged final products that are delivered to buyers, for example in the retail sector. In a circular economy, it is important to also take the development of raw materials on one side and waste processing on the other side into account during the design phase. By doing so, it becomes possible to close the chain from waste to raw material.

The role of the packaging designer

This requires designers to think differently: how can I use my design to avoid creating any waste? How can my product or its packaging fit in with the technical cycle in which materials are ultimately recycled into new raw materials, or the biological cycle in which materials can be composted to provide nutrients for the cultivation of renewable resources? Which cycle is best for the product-packaging combination? What other systems or business models can we utilise to meet the needs of consumers?

The waste stage


The use of packaging materials is subject of European legislation. On 20 December 1994, the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union introduced the Directive 94/62/EG (hereinafter: Directive) for packaging materials and packaging waste. This Directive was subsequently revised on 22 May 2018. The goal of this Directive is to limit the use of packaging materials and stimulate recycling, reuse and other useful applications for packaging waste.

All EU Member States are required to implement the Directive in their own national legislation. Every Member State has its own way of doing so. Packforward started to give an overview of the way the different Member States implemented the Directive, but the overview is not completed yet. You can find more information for the Netherlands, information about other countries will follow soon.

Despite the efforts made with regard to collecting, sorting and recycling packaging waste, new raw materials will have to flow into the packaging chain in order to safeguard the quality of the material and compensate for the loss of material in the chain. For a growing number of the new raw materials, steps are being taken towards a circular economy, e.g. by making use of biobased materials.




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