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Thinking outside the bottle to develop circular packaging


Taking a holistic approach to packaging design ensures truly sustainable packaging 

Plastic pollution is an escalating global crisis that threatens the well-being of the environment, aquatic and terrestrial life, and human health. According to the OECD, mankind is producing twice as much plastic waste as we were two decades ago, but only 9% of it is successfully recycled and the rest ends up in landfill, incinerated, or leaking into the environment. 

Much of the discussion around plastic waste focuses on individual disposal responsibility. However, the source of plastic waste is businesses that produce and/or utilize plastic in their products. And a major root of the plastic waste problem is breakdowns between stakeholders in the value chain. Even within a company with good intentions, misaligned objectives between departments can result in products which cannot be recycled and ultimately end up as waste.

One company determined to make a difference in the world of plastics, and get companies on board, is Searious Business. They work closely with major brands, waste management players, and public institutions to stimulate wide-scale systemic change and work together to bring plastic pollution back to zero.

We spoke with Willlemijn Peeters, Founder and CEO of Searious Business, about how her company helps brands rethink their approach to packaging and move towards a circular economy for plastic, all while maintaining a competitive advantage.

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How do you support brands in their decisions involving sustainable packaging? How do you influence the process?

Most CEOs already recognize that the circular economy is essential for their company’s future success. It allows you to extract maximum value from your materials and can provide a competitive edge long term. They are also aware of a shift in customer perception. Today’s consumer wants their brands to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability. 

We help our clients assess their current packaging portfolio and look for areas of improvement. It could be redesigning packaging and products, identifying recycling solutions, or rebuilding business models toward ones with a lowered plastic footprint. For solutions to be permanently transformative, they must also be profitable. By creating shared value, we can keep plastic in our economy and out of our ocean. 

How are companies in the home and personal care segment struggling with sustainable packaging? What are some of their biggest pain points?

The home and personal care sector faces several challenges when it comes to recycling. For example, the packaging can involve components made of different types of plastic, such as pumps, lids, and labels, which can be difficult for recycling equipment to identify and impossible to separate. Also, these components can come in a variety of bright colors which can’t be recycled together. The chemical contaminants inside can also affect the recyclability. Also, when it comes to including recycled content, achieving the right color and functionality can be difficult and expensive. Finally, opting for refill options can be challenging when dealing with thick liquids or certain chemicals. 

We typically support brands with a total packaging rethink and redesign: for instance, switching to a concentrated bar with reusable or compostable packaging. Thinking outside of the bottle, if you will!

What kind of information do home and personal care brands need in order to successfully develop recyclable and reusable materials?

Packaging designers should develop closer relationships with recycling partners so they can design for the system at hand and not fall victim to “wish-cycling” (attempting to recycle products that cannot actually be recycled). They might make different decisions if they knew how difficult their products were to process. They may even take charge of the system by bringing recycling in-house - then they’d be guaranteed a supply of quality recyclate. 

Marketing departments also need to be informed. Many choices of colors and materials marketers make are about brand identity and not about prioritizing sustainability. Many people don’t know how important adhesives are when it comes to sorting, or how the choice of label can make or break recyclability. They need to be updated on technological developments so they can prepare their strategy armed with the latest information.

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Labels are seen as an afterthought in packaging design. How should brands start thinking of this in the early stages? Where is the disconnect happening (in the EcoDesign process)?

Brands and their packaging designers must consider the entire life cycle of their products and how every element affects that. Besides functionality and aesthetics, their waste management must be considered, down to what kind of glue and ink you use.

Labels are indispensable for displaying product information, barcodes, and branding, but they shouldn’t be something you just slap on at the end of a process. They are an integral part of the design. If you make them out of the same material as the packaging, you can recycle them altogether. If you make them out of a different material, you must consider how easy they are to peel or wash off during recycling. Will the adhesives confuse the sorting equipment? If your label wraps the entire product, are you effectively communicating that the label needs to be removed by the customer? 

For example, we have seen enthusiastic marketeers wanting to cover packaging with claims of “greenness” - on labels which are not recyclable - thus completely messing up the recyclability of the packaging, and undoing the efforts made by the packaging and purchasing departments.

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What do you consider the role of the label in sustainable packaging?

In an ideal world, packaging would be standardized. It would all be the same plastic type, shape, texture, and color. Imagine how simple recycling would be if that were the case. While we imagine an ideal world, it would be even better if all these packages were refillable! 

In reality, brands are unlikely to want to give up their brand identity. That’s where labels can help, by providing shelf appeal and differentiation while at the same time allowing greater standardization for recycling or for refillable packaging. Labels can cover or distract from imperfections in recycled plastic, making recycled packaging more appealing, and they enable the brand to use their branding colors. You can even integrate tracking information into labels so they can be sorted more easily!

How do you work with companies like Avery Dennison to educate brands on their sustainable labeling needs?

We’re not scientists. We’re facilitators and accelerators of the needed systemic change. We depend on the scientific expertise of companies like Avery Dennison, and then we can make independent assessments and communicate these to our brand clients. That communication works both ways. We understand what brands need, and companies like Avery Dennison have the material science expertise to make it possible. Maintaining close relationships with partners all along the value chain is important so that we can stay abreast of all the latest developments and spot opportunities for optimization.

What are some of the biggest labeling trends and innovations you are seeing amongst home and personal care brands?

We’re seeing a lot of easy-peel or cold-wash labels, removable sleeves, and adhesive-free banner rolls on things like cleaning products. We’re also seeing more brands putting labels straight on the packaging using embossing or printing with washable inks.

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How do you envision the future of labels?

I think labels will get smaller and incorporate more EcoDesign themselves, using for example more mono-materials and fewer chemicals. There has been talk about on-the-shelf labeling, where the packages would be unmarked, and the information would be provided via a digital shelf banner. But I can’t see producers abandoning their branding altogether.

For me, the most significant opportunity for labeling is with reusable formats, so standard packs can be used and branding can be temporary and changeable. Let’s keep labels small and sustainable! This way the label can be a driver of change within the value chain.


Learn more about sustainable labels

Here at Avery Dennison, we have the expertise and experience to help brands make sustainable label choices that move us closer to a future of circularity. Discover our “Small. Yet Significant.” guide to navigating sustainable labeling for HPC brands to learn how you can incorporate material choices, EcoDesign best practices, and innovation into your packaging decisions. 


Our Ecosystem Managers are experts in the home and personal care space and are here to help you solve your sustainability challenges.