The world’s thirst for resources seems unquenchable. According to Earth Overshoot Day, it would take 1.75 Earths to regenerate the natural resources consumed in 2019. Even more sobering, if all countries on Earth drained them at the same rate as the United States, this year’s Earth Overshoot Day – the calendar day that marks the end of when Earth can replenish consumed resources in a given year – would have been on March 14. If everyone consumed at the same rate as Canada, it would have come four days later on March 18. Critical to turning the tide on our assault of the Earth’s biomass, minerals, and other resources, however, is decoupling economic growth from the requirement of resource extraction. One straightforward opportunity to help achieve decoupling is through the reuse of products like packaging.

Too much, too fast

As the UN noted in its 2019 Global Resources Outlook report, the past five decades have seen the globe’s population double, while material extraction has tripled. Meanwhile, the extraction and processing of natural resources have been accelerating over the last 20 years. These activities account for greater than 90% of biodiversity loss and water stress, along with roughly half of climate change impacts.

If historical trends continue, the UN projects global material extraction to grow by 110% between 2015 and 2060, while predicting per capita resource usage to increase by 55%. Such a trend will continue to strain resource supply systems while creating even higher levels of environmental pressures. Decoupling is needed to resolve the dilemma.

What is decoupling and how can it help

Decoupling can be described as breaking the link between the use of resources such as water, land, energy, and materials with economic growth. Given an expanding global population and growing aspirations for a better way of life, the only way to break the historical trend of “take, make and waste” is through the decoupling of natural resource use and environmental impacts from economic activity. The UN states that decoupling is an essential element in the transition to a sustainable future.

A brighter tomorrow will require economic systems that prolong the highest possible value of materials while eliminating waste. This opportunity is made possible through extended product life cycles, intelligent product design and standardization, as well as reuse, re-manufacturing, and end-of-life product recycling.

The opportunity for reusables

As we look for opportunities to reduce material consumption through practical circular applications, a focus on packaging material seems reasonable. Packaging production, after all, consumes a vast amount of virgin materials. According to a 2020 study, 40% of plastics and 50% of paper consumed in Europe are used for packaging, while trashed packaging represents 36% of municipal solid waste.

Photo courtesy: ORBIS Corp.

To date, sustainability efforts in the packaging sector have been mostly aimed at light-weighting and recycling. “Yet,” the same study observes, “reusable packaging is recognized as a more efficient option in reducing the impact of the volume of packaging materials and energy used while preventing production emissions.” The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has estimated that at least 20% of plastic consumer packaging could be replaced by reusable systems, creating a $10 billion business opportunity in the process.

Reusable packaging can help decouple resource extraction from economic growth through reuse and end of life recycling. While building a robust reusable container may initially require more resources than a single-use alternative, consider that it may have a life cycle that spans hundreds of shipments. By comparison, single-use containers must be manufactured again for each use. Every time a reusable is redeployed, on the other hand, it avoids the resources needed to produce yet another new single-use package. As a result, reusables consume dramatically less material on a per-use basis. Repair and end-of-life recycling programs to keep the product and material in productive use complete the loop for reusable packaging systems.

Reusables and decoupling in B2B and B2C supply chains

While reusables present an emerging opportunity in business-to-consumer (B2C) supply chains, they are well established as a best practice in many business-to-business (B2B) applications. Reusable packaging systems are popularly applied to stop packaging waste generation as well as the need to purchase expendable packaging repeatedly. Several case studies available at the Reusable Packaging Association website demonstrate how choosing reusables can make a positive difference both environmentally and financially for companies.

Photo courtesy: Schoeller Allibert

Additionally, the superior design of reusables enables them to indirectly reduce resource consumption through attributes such as transportation efficiencies and better product protection. Superior stacking functionality allows them to cube transport vehicles fully. And because they help maintain the optimal quality of goods being shipped, the resources required to replace unsaleable merchandise can be avoided. For example, RPCs were found to extend the freshness and visual appeal of fresh fruits and vegetables for up to four days compared to single-use packaging. Other research determined that the damage rate of RPCs in the fresh produce supply chain was less than 0.5% versus over 4% for single-use packaging.

Now is the time to decouple from the resource-hungry linear economic approach and to embrace circular strategies. Given the magnitude of resources used in packaging, starting with reusables or expanding your current program can provide an early win. It just might be the boost your company needs in its broader transition to circularity.

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