Letters From The Earth

A circular economy, ‘a better future’

By Calvin Frost | November 14, 2016

Thomas Jefferson said, “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.” Anne Gaasbeek of Pré Consultancy in the Netherlands echoes much the same in an article in the Public Affairs section of a FINAT publication. She writes about the environmental impact of PS labels on the recyclability of packaging and decoration methods. In Anne’s mind, the methodology of the work that Pré did in the joint TLMI/FINAT study to produce a harmonized LCA (Life Cycle Assessment) Guidance Document will force our industry into a “better future.” If that’s not enough, our own Ingrid Brase, formerly of National Starch/Henkel, and now an industry consultant, delivered what I call a blistering summary of problems and solutions identified by the LCA work. Her presentation to ASC (Adhesive and Sealant Council) demonstrates the need for a “better future.” Likewise, Mike Witte, Franklin International, Brian Hurst, Yerecic Label, and John Crosby, Grand Rapids Label, told an audience of dozens at the recent Environmental Committee meeting at the TLMI gathering in Palm Beach, FL, USA, we must make sensible, practical changes that will create a more sustainable industry, a “better future.” And finally, if that’s not enough, Anne Johnson of RRS (Resource Recycling Systems) delivered an outstanding summary at the same TLMI meeting, of the needs and requirements that will be demanded by the brand owner and retailer for a “better future.” As a parting shot, she suggested we only had to read the recent announcement by PepsiCo regarding its packaging recyclability goals:

“PepsiCo says it will work to eliminate packaging materials that inhibit sorting or contaminate downstream recycling streams. The global food and beverage company also said it will redesign the film in its snack packaging to create its recovery.” Watch out Bemis!

The pledges were included in the company’s recently announced 2025 sustainability goals, which call for designing all of the company’s packaging to be recoverable or recyclable within the next nine years. PepsiCo also said it will work to boost diversion rates by investing in local infrastructure and education, as well as partnering with outside groups to implement long-term solutions.
One of those outside groups mentioned in the report is the Closed Loop Fund, which provides no-interest and below-market-interest loans to boost recycling infrastructure in the US. PepsiCo is an investor in the fund. “The current recycling rate of our beverage packaging is not as high as it could be or as high as the demand for recycled PET on the part of PepsiCo and other companies, who use this recycled material to reduce their packaging footprint.” PepsiCo increased its usage of recycled PET by 3.6% last year. In 2015, the company used 139 million pounds of food-grade recycled PET, an increase of five million pounds over the year before, according to the report.

A recent report from the National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR) and the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR) estimated the US’ PET container recycling rate is steady at about 30%.

Pepsi is moving us to a “better future” 
Sorry for all the earlier acronyms. I was trying to bring a variety of comments from a variety of sources to your attention. Every one of them cries out for sensible solutions to waste, energy and water in our industry. In my view, one way to reach our goals, to make us more sustainable, is to build a “circular economy.” LCA, TLMI’s LIFE, PepsiCo’s goals for 2025, none of these are achievable without a circular economy, which will produce a “better future.” You can’t have a circular economy without recycling.  And, at the end of the day, recycling begins at home.

First, we need to understand our personal behaviors and habits.We are still disposing an average of 2.89 pounds per person per day in municipal solid waste (MSW). If Pepsi wants to achieve its goal, the company will have to change culture. It begins at home and at school. It begins with a “recycle” culture with our kids and grandchildren. “If we are going to mitigate climate change and conserve material resources, we need to collectively do more. Fundamental transformation that decouples economic health from environmental degradation is needed.” I know that’s a mouthful, but essentially we’re talking about a culture change, a change in habits and behavior, and it starts with our personal lives.

Susan Bush and Betsy Dorn of RSE USA talk about this in their incisive article in the August issue of Resources Recovery. Their article focuses on two strategic concepts of transformation: one is a circular economy, and the other, sustainable materials management. They quote the definition of a circular economy as “restorative and regenerative by design, and which aims to keep products and materials at their highest utility and value at all times.” Isn’t this what Anne Johnson was talking about? Isn’t this what PepsiCo is trying to achieve?

A circular economy, according to Bush and Dorn “allows for both a sustainable economy and environment to change from the historic pattern of economic growth resulting in environmental degradation.” Very simply, we must change our culture of use, abuse and discard. It just doesn’t work in a circular economy. Interestingly, every illustration of a circular economy that I have seen is similar to the same illustration for a design of a successful LCA: materials are recovered and directed to their highest use. In the circular economy and LCA concepts, there are two cycles, biological and technical, that account for different materials.

Europe leads the charge to attempt to put the concept of a circular economy into practice. For example, in 2015, the European Recycling Industries Confederation (EURIC) participated in consultations on the Circular Economy Package, a proposal set forth to revamp stewardship standards across the EU. At the same time, full product stewardship now exists in one Canadian Province, British Columbia. Their concept is “if you produce it, you’re responsible for its entire life, from start to finish.” This is the basic concept of EPR or Extender Producer Responsibility. The Ontario Province is now considering the same.

Finally, Avery Dennison has initiated “activating a circular economy.” The company acknowledges what we’ve known for years, that 60% of a PS label roll is “waste.” But, here’s the part I really like, “re-thinking”: 

Re-thinking Progress: The Circular Economy
“There is a world of opportunity to re-think and re-design the way we make stuff. ‘Re-Thinking Progress’ explores how through a change in perspective, we can re-design the way our economy works – designing products that can be “made to be made again” and powering the system with renewable energy. It questions whether, with creativity and innovation, we can build a restorative economy.”

The Commission (to be named): Avery Dennison believes we need linkage throughout the value chain; from film, adhesive and liner suppliers, PSA and other laminate manufacturers, the label converter, and the packaging and/or dispensing lines. Linking the value chain allows for us to have a clear picture of the waste streams at each point in the process, the chemistry of the material waste, and work together to build a circular economy for our industry. Some questions to answer: Who can reuse the products? What is the most valuable use of our post-industrial waste? What are the opportunities to re-design our products to create more valuable by-products?

This is pretty heady thinking and a great challenge for not only Avery but all of us in the supply chain. My fervent hope is our industry will work together to create change, to utilize the concepts of a circular economy and to create a “better future.” (Read about Patagonia’s move to a circular economy in my next column.)

Another Letter from the Earth.

Calvin Frost is chairman of Channeled Resources Group, headquartered in Chicago, the parent company of Maratech International and GMC Coating. His email address is