Upcycling is the new recycling

While packaging waste has always represented a valuable material resource in its own right, more could be done. According to the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP), in 2012 the UK recycled 61.4 per cent of its packaging, falling short of the EU-27 average of 64.6 per cent. It currently sits in eighteenth position in terms of member-state performance.

A new business agenda – the circular economy – is now emerging which could accelerate action on this front. The premise of a circular economy is to design out waste from industrial systems by keeping raw materials and products in use for as long as possible. It is forcing companies to rethink their approach so they retain more of the value of the material and energy inputs that go into products.


For packaging, this might mean developing products that can be upcycled rather than downcycled. Unlike recycling, which generally downgrades materials, upcycling can retain or increase the original value of the packaging for its next use. Carlsberg Group has targeted upcycling as one of the core strands of work under its Carlsberg Circular Community, a supplier-led initiative that aims to optimise the beer maker’s packaging for smarter reuse.


“We want to move away from our products having a ‘lifetime warranty’ and towards them having an ‘afterlife warranty’,” explains Simon Hoffmeyer Boas, senior corporate social responsibility manager at Carlsberg Group. He points to an example of upcycling being “when a refillable bottle is washed and refilled, thus becoming a beer bottle once again, or when a can is sent back into the marketplace as a new product thereby retaining the value of the aluminium”.

In some markets, Carlsberg already offers refillable glass bottles which in some cases are used more than 30 times. “Return rates do differ by markets, according to how efficient the reverse logistics setup is, how well the consumer is educated in terms of returning the used packaging and to what extent the incentive structure is defined,” Mr Hoffmeyer Boas says.


While some of Carlsberg’s innovation work on this front probably goes unnoticed by the consumer, such as optimisation of inks and lacquers on packaging, on-pack educational messaging can give good visibility. However, any sustainable alternatives must deliver added value to the customer – factors such as aesthetics, convenience and user experience all come into play.

The company is mindful of this challenge going forward. “We are looking into rethinking our packaging materials and introducing innovations that challenge the boundaries of today’s beer packaging. These would have a different look and feel that would be very apparent to consumers,” says Mr Hoffmeyer Boas.

Meanwhile, computer giant Dell has a goal of creating 100 per cent waste-free packaging by 2020. It has taken a different approach, one that draws on the principles of biomimicry which uses nature as a template for material design. The company is making packaging from compostable and recyclable materials, such as bamboo, mushrooms and wheat straw. In the case of wheat straw, the production process uses 40 per cent less energy and 90 per cent less water than traditional methods.

The premise of a circular economy is to design out waste from industrial systems by keeping raw materials and products in use for as long as possible

“We incorporate wheat straw in the production of corrugated boxes for laptop products, mixing the straw with recycled paper fibres to create the cardboard,” says Oliver Campbell, Dell’s director of procurement for packaging. “Wheat straw is the leftover canes after the wheat grains are harvested and is treated mostly as waste. In some countries farmers burn it, contributing to air pollution.”

Mr Campbell maintains that the boxes look and perform like regular cardboard, and at end of life can be channelled into existing recycling streams. This is important when it comes to customer disposal of packaging as the infrastructure must be in place to support effective recovery.


Consumer-facing messaging is key here, notes WRAP’s director of sustainable food systems Richard Swannell. “For packaging, one of the most successful interventions has been the on-pack recycling label. This gives people at home clear information about how to recycle the packaging in their cupboards and helps keep material flowing within the economy,” he says.

Dr Swannell has yet to be convinced of the benefits of compostable packaging, feeling it offers less “closed-loop” potential than recycling in regard to the use of resources. Mark Shayler, an eco-packaging expert, is inclined to agree. “The consumer likes the idea of compostable packaging, but the reality is it doesn’t compost effectively yet. You need tightly controlled commercial composting facilities to make it work,” he says.


Mr Shayler says the rise of flexible packaging, such as plastic bags, sweet wrappers and laminated pouches, also presents a recovery challenge. Data sourced from packaging compliance scheme operator Valpak indicates flexible packaging makes up 32 per cent of consumer plastic packaging in the UK, with virtually all of it – 556,000 tonnes – ending up in landfill.

“Laminated packaging, such as pouches, are difficult to deconstruct to the core constituents of aluminum and polyethylene; all you can do is downcycle them into a very inferior quality fibrous product that mixes those two things together,” he says.

Moves are now underway to address this. Nestlé and Unilever are among a group of companies backing a project to make plastic-based flexible packaging more circular through the use of new barrier polymers, novel packaging designs and smarter reprocessing technology. The project is being partly government funded by Innovate UK and will run for two years. Industry-wide guidelines will be drawn up as part of the output.

“We will be demonstrating improved recyclability for flexible packaging used for both Nestlé and Unilever products,” says Liz Morrish, principal consultant at project lead Axion Recycling. Innovate UK’s lead specialist for sustainability Dr Mike Pitts reckons it could become a circular-economy blueprint. “We’re very excited about it as it contains all the nodes of the new network needed to close the loop on this form of packaging,” he says.