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The Tallow Candle

In 2012, a manuscript was found of what is suspected to be the earliest known fairytale of Hans Christian Andersen. It is a story called the Tallow Candle, written in the 1820s. The story talks about a candle that, through a series of unfortunate events became a piece of trash and lost its meaning, and the twist of how it got rediscovered. Much like almost every piece of packaging today, we are trying to search for another meaning for it through recycling.

However, what happens to the packaging after it reaches the recycle bin, does it really get another life like the Tallow Candle? In this article we will explore this topic a little bit further. In our introduction to the Circular Economy concept (Article I and Article II), recycling is one of the most common yet the longest route to achieve a Circular Economy. Yet, the reality is, not all recyclable packages find their second life through recycling. Why is that and what can businesses do instead?

One of the answers could be multi-use packaging.

Before we get into it, first we need to know why not everything is being recycled.

How does waste management work?

Circular Economy Recycle

"Practically Recyclable"

It all starts with how a waste management company can stay in business. When we think about recyclability of goods, we must think about whether one would be able to make a profit out of recycling. A waste company needs to ensure that their processes to collect waste, separate different components on the same packaging (the glass bottle and its plastic cap), and recycling the product gives them an end value that will allow for a profit margin.

Tom Szaky is the CEO of Terracycle, a waste management organization that transforms waste into value. In his presentation in 2021’s ChangeNOW conference, he explained how waste management companies manage to stay in business. They have to work with materials that aren’t just “recyclable” as a material, but “practically recyclable”. What that means is if the costs of the logistics and processing are less than the value of the resulting material, that product will become practically recyclable. So, it boils down to finding the material that brings you the right value!

What are the current problems?

Today, we have two problems. First of all, most packaging today are not profitable to recycle anymore. For example, lightweight plastic has become very popular in the last few years because it costs the manufacturer less the products and transport. Even though the material itself by definition can be recycled, the cost of collecting and processing these packages result in less value when they are being reproduced. At the end of the day, we end up with non-recycled plastic packaging.

Secondly, even in the waste management industry, there are materials that are more sought after than others. PET drink bottles are most popular to be recycled due to their composition being remarkably close to virgin plastic. For that reason, there is a lot of demand for this type of plastic than others. These two factors leave us with a situation where a lot of packaging out there is not being recycled, even if the material claims to be “recyclable”. This is why, impact-makers are shifting towards looking for innovation that will create reusable packaging to extend the lifecycle of each piece of packaging.

Multi-use packaging is nothing new. Why now?

Before you close this article thinking that I’m not telling you anything new (“bring your own bag” has been around for ages to replace plastic bags) think about why it never truly took off until governments had to impose additional fees and strict bans on plastic bags?

Partly because we are human, and laziness is part of our genes. The convenience of just grabbing your shopping without having to remember to bring a shopping bag, outweighs the personal benefits of carrying an unfashionable canvas bag in your briefcase and having to wash it when you get home. The linear economy model of take-use-dispose is exceptionally predominant in the packaging industry.

However, with the increased pressure in bans of using one-time plastic and other environmental pledges, companies are trying to become more innovative in the way that they represent their products in terms of reusability and better functionality. For example, some European supermarkets are piloting reusable bottles and containers with food manufacturers. Customers can buy a tub of Häagen-Dazs ice cream in an aluminum tub and return the tub to get a small deposit back. We will discuss why these food brands decide to go for this solution in the next article.

More recently, given the rapid rise of online shopping, there are also new solutions popping up everywhere for reusable postage packages. Consumers can buy products online, and return the packaging used to carry their ordered goods to an appointed location for it to be reused. For example, French start-up Hipli offers a packaging solution for online retailers to send items out to their customers and have the packaging sent back to the sender to be reused.

In one way or another, it is becoming increasingly popular to move away from single use packaging. There is in fact, plenty of innovative solutions out there and Luxe Packaging Insights is a very interesting source of information about the latest trends and sustainable solutions.

In the next article we will discuss the key opportunities for impact-makers in the space of multi-use packaging and thoughts on how to leverage on these opportunities.