Behind the challenges of working towards a circular economy

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

By the time we post this article in Nairobi a historic international resolution was adopted at the fifth session of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-5.2) to forge an international legally binding agreement by 2024 in order to tackle plastic pollution. The resolution addresses the full lifecycle of plastic, including its production, design, and disposal.

“Against the backdrop of geopolitical turmoil, the UN Environment Assembly shows multilateral cooperation at its best. Plastic pollution has grown into an epidemic. With today’s resolution we are officially on track for a cure.”

Espen Barth Eide, President of UNEA-5 and Norway’s Minister for Climate and the Environment

What is the role of business in addressing plastic pollution?

Packaging is the most dominant source of plastic being produced globally.

While for many industries — in particular food and cosmetics — packaging can be necessary to prevent or minimize waste, today there is a wide range of ways companies across sectors can reduce their environmental footprint. Some considerations are the quantity of packaging used, the materials used (plastic, paper, glass, aluminum, carton and other commonly used materials), whether they are virgin or recycled content, and whether they are single-use or reusable — ultimately working towards transitioning from a linear to a circular economy.

According to the Ellen McArthur Foundation, a circular economy is based on three principles, driven by design: eliminate waste and pollution, circulate products and materials (at their highest value) and regenerate nature. Similarly, the European Union has identified the five-step “waste hierarchy”, established in the Waste Framework Directive. It gives guidance on an order of preference for managing and disposing of waste: preventing waste is the preferred option, and sending waste to landfill should be the last resort.

With these principles in mind, we see that packaging cannot be assessed in a silo. The life-cycle assessment is a key methodology that helps companies analyze the environmental impacts associated with all the stages of the life cycle of their product: from raw material extraction and processing, through the product’s manufacture, distribution, and use, to the recycling or final disposal of the materials composing it.

Along this journey, the scarcity of materials, transportation, and the different recycling rates across countries can greatly influence the environmental harm of commercial products. The return and collection of packaging are strictly linked to consumers’ behavior and government schemes. As of today, there are different Deposit Return Systems (DRS) across Europe, and companies can play a key role in improving their efficacy through collaboration.

Honing in on the environment: How does the B Impact Assessment look at packaging?

The B Impact Assessment is a holistic framework that evaluates the positive impact of a company’s social and environmental performance across five impact areas — community, customers, environment, governance, and workers.

The environment section evaluates a company’s overall environmental management practices and business model as well as its impact on the air, climate, water, land, and biodiversity. This includes the direct impact of a company’s operations and, when applicable, its supply chain and distribution channels.

This section includes questions such as:

  • Which of the following practices are in place to integrate environmental considerations (Design For Environment) into the design of products and services?
  • How does your company track and manage waste in your supply chain?
  • Which practices are in place to manage and minimize the impact of product usage?
  • How has your company utilized the results of your environmental footprint assessment to manage and minimize your overall impact?
  • How does your company minimize the environmental impact of the packaging of your products?
  • Which practices does your company have in place to manage product longevity in order to reduce overall consumption and waste to landfill?
  • Which practices are in place to reduce waste to landfill after the usage of your product and/or its packaging?
  • If the company has conducted a study of end-of-life disposal in the last two years, what % by volume of the company’s products/ wastes sold and their packaging materials are reclaimed (i.e. recycled or reused) at the end of their useful life?

The environment section also evaluates whether and how a company is designed to create specific, positive environmental impacts for their stakeholders through the company’s product, service or a particular process.

With input from experts and stakeholders, B Lab’s Standards Advisory Council also continually evolves risk standards to effectively evaluate the potential negative impacts of different industries, policies, and practices.

For example, bottled water companies are required to meet requirements around sustainable water usage, fair water access, and waste management to be eligible for B Corp Certification, and disclose additional information regarding these practices on their public B Corp profile.

B Lab’s Standards Advisory Council evaluates bottled water companies and their mitigation of potential negative impacts prior to certification to ensure that Certified B Corps in the bottled water industry are proactively managing and demonstrating leadership on those issues. We review the practices that the company has put in place to minimize the input materials of the packaging (also known as source reduction), substitute more sustainable or recycled materials, and manage waste at the output level (supporting recycling programs).

B Lab is also currently in the process of reviewing its performance requirements for B Corp Certification across all industries. As part of this review, B Lab will develop new performance requirements that will include requirements on approximately ten specific topics — including environmental management — to ensure that B Corp Certification remains a differentiation of high-performing companies using business as a force for good. For more information on the performance requirements review, read our latest update here.

So, what are B Corps doing to reduce and work towards eliminating their packaging waste?

There are several B Corps who are leading the way when it comes to transitioning to a circular economy: see the full list of 2021 Best for the World companies in the environment category here. For example, the French B Corp SQUIZ has prevented the creation of over 90 tons of hard-to-recycle consumer waste through the use of their locally-sourced reusable food pouches. In 2019, Danone launched the first project in partnership with Loop, the 1L evian glass bottle, and more recently a reusable yogurt pot in the UK and France. Blédina, the French baby food company part of Danone, launched its first range of reusable pots and jars.

The newly certified Rituals Cosmetics who recently joined the B Corp Beauty Coalition launched a refill collection that allowed them to significantly save on water, waste, energy and CO2 used. In 2020 they used 237.000 kg less material and saved 8.5 million liters of water.

And what about companies that are taking a closer look at their products’ impact on the environment and looking to reduce their footprint? Rethinking a company’s supply chain to address the issue of packaging waste is no easy feat, and there are several constraints and existing patterns many industries face that create barriers along the way.

Being a B Corp doesn’t mean that a company is ‘perfect’ — and businesses are not expected to have every possible best practice, or even be free from mistakes. Below are a few examples of B Corps around Europe who have committed to reducing packaging waste and have been transparent about their imperfect journey along the way.

Since 2019, Heura, the plant-based start-up from Barcelona, has been continuously assessing its packaging and went through three different rounds of changes, focusing on carbon footprint reduction and circularity. Heura defined their latest solution as the most sustainable to produce, the easiest to recycle, and the one that offers the most protection for their products whilst reducing food waste. In the latest iteration, they have managed to reduce their water consumption by 15% and CO2 emissions by 47%. They have also been open and transparent with their customers about their packaging journey, by sharing on social media the different versions implemented in years and the challenges presented.

Simple Feast, the Danish plant-based food company, was challenged by packaging waste like all meal-kit providers. Founder Jakob Jønck said after the company’s first funding round. “Nobody has ever taken the challenge of creating climate-friendly, plant-based food seriously while serving it directly to consumers.” One way the company has explored reducing its packaging is by designing a reusable box, Cirqle, whose concept has then been extended to their entire delivery system: the platform is supported by their reuse service in which they connect reusable packaging, washing, and delivery/return through partners, to offer a full reuse service for companies in the food and beverage industry.

Ace & Tate, the Dutch eyewear brand that joined the B Corp community in 2021, took responsibility for their mistakes and shared the lessons learned in trying to minimize their environmental impact. In their journey, they realized that some materials perceived as less harmful by consumers are not necessarily the best choice. Adding bamboo fiber to their case actually decreased the recyclability of their product. Now, They subsequently changed the material to 100% rPP — recycled Polypropylene, a type of commodity plastic. To do so, they implemented a process for material and supplier decisions that involve their Environmental and Social Responsibility team more closely.

Flax & Kale, a healthy packaged food & beverage and restaurants group, also invested in developing biodegradable packaging. Although they are working on using more sustainable packaging that can be composted, it has not been possible for them to completely do it without plastic. In those cases, they choose to use rPET, Recycled plastic that helps reduce CO2 emissions. In addition, they internally recycle the glass kombucha bottles that customers don’t take after consuming at their restaurants and the ones they return. Used glass bottles are cleaned and disinfected with machinery and reused again so that they can have infinite lives.

Transparency is key

Evian, the French bottled water company, created a circularity dashboard to promote transparency and accountability of where they are on their journey of continuous improvement. Their plastic bottles are already 100% recyclable, but in 2018 they set a target for every product in their portfolio to be made from 100% recycled plastic by 2025 — so no virgin plastic is added into the economy. To achieve this goal, evian works with technology partners such as Loop Industries to continuously source and transform all types of PET packaging into the high-quality materials needed for their products.

Beyond rethinking the materials used in their packaging — it’s also crucial to consider the full life cycle of the product. evian supports recycling initiatives around the world and has forged partnerships to accelerate the development of large-scale recycling infrastructure. Meanwhile, they have also explored packaging innovations and collaborations over the years, including refillable dispensers, sparkling water sold in cans, and refillable glass bottles.

While there is still plenty of progress to be made towards achieving their goals, communicating with transparency about their journey and the challenges and milestones along the way is essential to also inspire others within the industry to transition from a linear to a circular economy.

What does your imperfect journey look like? What are the challenges that you are encountering in trying to reduce waste and preserve resources in the present and for future generations? We encourage you to share your learnings with us and the B Corp community.

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Highlighting how companies are using business as a force for good across Europe

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Highlighting how companies are using business as a force for good across Europe

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