The Circular Economy Model: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle

As a trusted partner of many of the world’s largest consumer brands, we take their commitment to the environment, along with ours, very seriously. In packaging, there’s little more important from an innovation standpoint than innovation in support of sustainability or accomplishing the circular economy model. From the processes we use to design, make and deliver products to the materials chosen to ensure the most environmentally friendly options, sustainability takes top priority. In its simplest form, the circular economy model is all about the three Rs – Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.

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Commitment to Sustainable Innovation, Jabil Packaging Solutions

Sometimes Less is More

From a packaging perspective, the first ‘R’ of the circular economy model is all about reducing weight, size and volume of the plastic packages that end up in landfill – and it’s also where we add the most value. Every cubic inch or ounce we reduce is one that we don’t need to reuse or recycle. And it’s not just the product and packaging that we can reduce, it’s also the supply chain steps on the supply and delivery side.

Reduce: Less Packaging by Design

Efforts to reduce start at the innovation phase where we explore the intended use, the most efficient way to deliver the product, the materials in the packaging, its weight, and if it can be collapsible to take up less space when it does reach landfill. At this stage, it’s essential to take a long hard look at the fundamental reason for the packaging itself, examining what it does for the product and for the consumer. Concentrates are a great example of the ‘reduce’ strategy, providing concentrated formulas that require less packaging and product to ship, and a more economical and sustainable supply chain, all while delivering the same performance and often increased doses for the consumer.

Jabil Packaging Solutions (JPS) has a great deal of experience and expertise in this area, bringing together many factors to support the ‘reduce’ strategy. At a consultation level, JPS can analyze the packaging needs and advise on the most sustainable solution. Beyond this, JPS will design the ideal packaging solution before manufacturing the packaging in the most sustainable manner. Designing a packaging solution calls for strong considerations around materials and supply chain, the delivery model and the number of steps in the delivery process, the sustainability of the packaging manufacturing process and much more.

Bringing another dimension and depth of resource within JPS is the dedicated Material Science Technical Center, where new materials and value-added blends for use in sustainable packaging are developed and tested.

Reuse: Refill and Repurpose

Beyond minimizing the packaging to reduce its end-of-life environmental impact, making the most of the product’s life is imperative. This means designing packaging that has a longer life than the product initially shipped in it. And this is the second “R” in the circular economy model – Reuse. Sometimes this is as simple as refilling the packaging with the same product, but sometimes the packaging can be used for an entirely different product, perhaps one that means the packaging requires less cleaning or sterilization. It’s important to ensure that the energy and shipping costs of re-using a package do not outweigh the benefit of reuse.

Opportunities also exist in the repurposing of packaging, not just to store other products, but also in the production of energy or for products that deliver a completely different functional value – such as roof shingles made of recycled plastic. Some types of packaging can be converted into clean-burning energy sources. In fact, in some cases, the material is secured from landfills, isolated into the right materials and then converted into fuel. The idea that packaging can have a second life is indeed appealing. 

Recycle: Holistic Product, Process and Material Approach

Having done all that can be done to reduce packaging and reuse all or some of it, the final part of the circular economy model is the third “R” - Recycle. To recycle the package - breaking it down through grinding or melting to secure elements that can be used in other products - requires a balanced view since the energy, environmental and financial costs of breaking it down can be substantial.

Recycling is a vital component of the circular economy, driving innovation in materials to create products where the maximum amount of the material used initially can be reclaimed and used again. The most successful example of this is the aluminum can where almost all the metal is available after the can have been recycled and a relatively small amount of energy is required to reclaim it. The high recycle throughput achieved in the aluminum space is the target for plastics and things are steadily improving. Watch Jabil's short documentary: The Sustainable Packaging Revolution.

To recycle effectively, a holistic approach is required as it relates to the product, process, and material. Focusing on the material and creating a process that uses too much energy or has an overly complex supply chain will not serve to create a more sustainable solution. Many brands have successfully embarked on the circular economy journey required to make a difference, including Keurig Green Mountain for its K-cups. While challenging, Keurig’s efforts are being widely lauded for their overall impact on the environment and commitment to a 100 percent recyclable solution before 2020.

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Biodegradable and Compostable

Biodegradable or compostable materials like bio-polymers are equally interesting. Biopolymers are renewable, non-fossil, primarily plant-based, and can be regrown over and over. While the focus tends to be on emerging bio-based polymers such as PLA, PHA or thermoplastic starch, there are several more traditional polymers including polyethylene PP, PET, and vinyl emerging from bio-sources. While this category holds promise and innovation is evolving, the materials bring limitations in durability and strength especially at elevated temperatures, and they tend to also come with higher costs. But they are critical to the circular economy model. 

This is another area where the material science innovation team at Jabil is leaning in to explore existing offerings and develop new solutions, delivering hybrid materials that are cost-effective, perform well and are scalable for the future of a sustainable society.

Making Sustainable Packaging Sustainable

Beyond the packaging itself, there is little point in making sustainable packaging in a manner that harms the environment. Production, supply chain and the facilities where the packaging is made must have their own sustainability strategy. Take the JPS facility in Tortosa, Spain, where energy consumption in the last seven years has reduced by more than 23 percent, and fuel consumption by 42.9 percent, thanks to a renewables contribution that rose 71.8 percent. This equates to a CO2 reduction of more than 70 percent. Through critical steps in the environmental process, our plant in Spain now operates 100 percent by renewable energy.

And this is just one isolated example. Jabil Packaging Solutions harvests wind and solar energy from our plant roof in Mebane, North Carolina, and we leverage solar energy in Tiszaújváros, Hungary and in Shanghai, China, as well. Jabil generates solar power onsite and conserves energy through waste heat recovery, solar radiators, heat pumping and geothermal energy - the equivalent of 910 KW of power.

Manufacturing sustainably is in Jabil’s DNA, and lean principles are designed to make the circular economy model a reality—making production and supply chain processes as efficient as possible, driving minimal waste. Reduction in energy, carbon footprint and waste from manufacturing is good for Jabil, its customers, and the environment. To that end, there are countless examples of JPS helping brands meet and exceed their carbon footprint targets. One such example had a large food and beverage partner move from glass containers to plastic containers, which can be stacked for transport. The customer not only reduced the number of trucks on the road by 8 times but also cut both cost and carbon footprint, simply by shifting to a lighter, more stackable solution.

Sustainable Packaging Delivers

Sustainability makes business sense. Consumers care, wholesalers care, brands care—everyone cares. And to make matters even more compelling, saving material and energy saves money and the environment. Sounds like a win/win to me.