Don’t get distracted by the symptoms – find the root causes of packaging waste

Packaging is a bigger problem than ever. We need to change course.

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Many Asian countries lack the infrastructure to deal with packaging waste through proper collection, recycling or disposal.

Nonetheless, the use of packaging continues to soar, in tandem with the resultant environmental burden. 

Waste is not just the physical manifestation of discarded materials.

From resource extraction, manufacturing, transportation and end of life it also pollutes air, soil and water, depleting natural resources and destroying ecosystems.   

Solutions and approaches, however, are highly context dependent.

Off-the-shelf solutions, such as replacing a plastic cup with a paper cup, only shifts the burden from one resource stream to another, creating negative impacts elsewhere. 

We are getting distracted by the symptoms when we need to tackle the root causes.

Relevant Sustainable Development Goals

We can continue to debate about what is a more sustainable packaging: plastic or paper, glass or metal.

The truth is – as with much of sustainability – it depends! 

Mountains of waste and pollution are symptoms of a problem rooted in underlying structures of our complex systems. 

Many of us understand on an intellectual level that we are living in an interdependent world.

However, few of us can actually trace these relationships to see how they produce patterns of behavior that result in the negative outcomes we are seeing. 


Rising concern

Today, ASEAN, the People’s Republic of China and India remain the main focus for growth for many packaging companies.

At the same time, Asian consumers are increasingly concerned about the environmental and health impacts of packaging waste and pollution. 

A McKinsey packaging survey from 2020 found high levels of concern among consumers in the People’s Republic of China, India and Indonesia over air and water pollution, deforestation and natural-resource depletion. 

New sustainability regulation is expanding to become more of a global phenomenon, no longer confined to a few countries or regions.

Packaging waste policies and standards can create an enabling environment to address these growing challenges. 

In Southeast Asia however, policy efforts vary in scope, impact and priority. 

A recent report from the United Nations Environment Programme and GA Circular, a Singapore-based consultancy, found that legislative frameworks in many ASEAN countries focus on the end of the value chain waste treatment.

This includes requirements for municipal solid waste treatment, marine and anti-litter legislation, collection, separation & recycling, and so on.

Fewer have legislation that tackles the source of waste, such as extended producer responsibility (EPR), design for repair and take-back schemes.

The report recognizes that policy regimes can and should address all aspects of the packaging value chain, versus focusing on individual aspects.

Holistic policy approaches will help remove ingrained waste streams from our economic systems, where society pays the price for externalities. 


Corporate action

Companies also play an integral part and have a responsibility to act.

It is vital for companies to develop strategies that will address consumer concerns as well as drive long-term business success. 

Traditional approaches that focus on discrete parts of the value chain – such as simplifying packaging from mixed-materials to single type, reducing unnecessary packaging and improving recycling – are important, but not sufficient. 

Strategies must be based on a deep understanding of packaging’s entire life-cycle, as well as its interaction with other elements within a wider system. 

Examining the problem from all possible perspectives, while understanding interactions within the system and between sub-systems, will help to discover and create more transformational solutions. 

Here is what I mean. Some B2C companies, in their attempts to reduce waste and emissions from single-use products, are focusing on reducing material use per unit of product with smaller sizes and lighter packaging.

This shift, however, has increased total material use, as well as waste volume and the environmental impacts in production and after a product’s useful life. 

Reusable packaging is recognized as a more effective way to reduce the impact of the volume of packaging materials and energy used in its production.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that at least 20% of plastic packaging could be replaced by reusable and refillable systems

However, reuse is more difficult to envision and to design for.

It requires a well-built infrastructure to collect, wash, sterilize, refill and return the packaging to consumers. 

Packaging also needs to be more robust, to withstand repeated cleaning and transportation.

Thus manufacturing for reuse might require using materials with a higher environmental impact. These materials need to be used enough times to compensate for this


System-thinking is key

Sounds like there is no winning this battle?

This is where system-thinking comes in handy – a holistic approach that focuses on the relationships between different elements within a system, not on the elements themselves. 

Involving all stakeholders can develop a better understanding of a system, focusing on the way its constituent parts interrelate, and how it functions over time and within the larger context. 

Such an approach will help to create net positive benefits for the environment, users and business, avoiding silos and unintended consequences.

Viewing sustainability issues as systemic issues is a key factor in strategic planning.

It will enable companies to innovate in a way that will fundamentally change the basis of competition and will be a true differentiator to attract consumer interest and drive success.

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Anna Itkin

Co-Founder & Managing Director, The Inceptery

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