Starting the journey

Tackling the problem of plastic packaging head on!

Climate change or not, the one problem that noone denies is plastic. Our oceans are full of plastics and in Asia rivers are clogging up with disposed plastic packaging. So, the problem is huge and so is the challenge of solving this problem. More and more, citizens get concerned and voices become louder to abolish plastics altogether. But, is this the solution? In this time where we need to mind our carbon footprint, plastic is a very efficient and low energy packaging material. Production and transport of plastics are far more energy efficient than when you use packaging made from glass, steel and even aluminum. Plastic packaging is first and foremost an environmental problem. In other words, we need to do everything to prevent plastic spills in our environment, or ending up as landfill or -after incineration- as CO2.

With this in mind, frontrunning companies have started to publish commitments to move their packaging portfolio to 100% recyclable and to include ca 30 % post-consumer recycled plastics. This is to be commended of course. These measures will definitely help create a circular plastics economy (see model Ellen MacArthur foundation). The big if here, however, is related to where we are today. Developed economies have set up a waste disposal system that is optimized to efficiently collect and dispose our waste, not to recycle it. So, even when large companies make laudable commitments, solving the plastic packaging problem will require a true system change. The key question here is how to start this transition. In the following I will give an example of how this could be done.

In May 2019 we kicked off a Field lab on circular plastic packaging in the Netherlands. This field lab, which is in fact a virtual organisation, has a clear purpose: realizing full circularity for plastic packaging in the Netherlands. The field lab works with use cases: real life circular packaging challenges handed in by companies like Unilever, Heineken, Ahold, and Farm Frites. After an induction phase (to collecting the relevant data) a series of three workshops is held to a. obtain a 360' view of the challenge at hand, b. define the long term goal and identify a roadmap to get there and c. to form a coalition with all the partners necessary to close the cycle and take on the first step. One of the key principles is that for every use case we really close the circle. The second key principle is that we start work directly after workshop 3. So, after the workshops were finished, work on the first set of seven use cases started in Q4 2019. At present, considerable progress has been made on a number of use cases. Some are already considering scaling up. Of course, the solutions will not be perfect yet, but by starting the work, we also start learning and achieving.

In the coming months, I will share other lessons learned from this field lab approach. The take home message is that the best way to start system change is to start as soon as you can meet the following requirements:

- you need to have a clear and inspiring purpose

- you need to team up with all the partners required to close the circle

- you need to say "GO" and start.