How to Cut Packaging Waste from your Supply Chain

How to Cut Packaging Waste from your Supply Chain

September 28, 2021

How to Cut Packaging Waste from your Supply Chain

Packaging waste has become one of the biggest plagues of this decade, mainly due to its proliferation and single use.

According to Eurostat, Europe produced 170 million tonnes of packaging waste in 2018 (equivalent to 174kg per European inhabitant), approximately 40% being cardboard and paper, 20% plastic, 20% glass and 20% wood. Due to poor waste management systems around the world and consumer littering, the majority of plastic packaging that is sent to landfills ends up in our natural environment.  Eight million tonnes of plastic are dumped in the ocean every year, threatening wildlife, altering ecosystems and posing risks to human health.    

Secondary and tertiary packaging used in the supply chain is also a growing problem; from one-way pallets and disposable cardboard boxes to plastic wrap, it generates high volumes of waste, greenhouse gases and consumption of fossil fuels, all of which contribute significantly to the world’s environmental challenges. The recycling effort needed is huge and requires millions of tonnes of CO² - exacerbating our already worsening climate warming issue.

Eliminating waste is a reputational imperative and commercial opportunity for manufacturers and retailers alike. Businesses that fail to manage their waste will find their operations become less sustainable. What’s more, other companies may not work with organizations that create excess waste, as this impacts their supply chain and sustainability goals and values.

It’s no surprise then that both society and planet are calling for a total rethink of packaging.

But where do we start?

Back in 1979, Ad Lansink, a Dutch politician, created and presented the Eponym ladder. Even today, he is still considered the father of the waste hierarchy. A proper application of the hierarchy can help prevent greenhouse gas emissions, reduce pollutants, save energy, conserve resources, create jobs, and stimulate the development of green technologies.  For this reason, the waste hierarchy has become a reliable reference used across industry. 

Let’s focus on the top two steps – reduce and reuse.

Waste Hierarchy

Reduce is the obvious first step that everyone can take

Preventing waste at the source, or eliminating waste before it is created, is the most effective way to minimize a system’s impact on the environment. Many companies are concerned about the amount of packaging their products are transported in and try to avoid goods that they consider to be ‘over-packaged’.

Removing extra packaging, such as blisters or shrink wraps, is one way to 'reduce'. However, rethinking the product itself to quantitatively lower the weight of the packaging used is another. For example, concentrating the product - dehydrating it to reduce the volume of water and therefore the size of the primary packaging required.

However, where you cannot reduce without compromising the functionality and need for packaging, re-use becomes the next best option to pursue.

Waste in Stores

Reusable packaging

Reusable packaging is packaging that is used multiple times. It is often used to move, store and distribute products throughout the supply chain, improving product flow in an environmentally friendly way. It is typically designed for durability, ease of use, cleaning, repair and is ideally collapsible or nestable.

According to the Reusable Packaging Association (RPA), reusable packaging can help to eliminate the need to recycle or remanufacture single-use packaging, reducing CO² (greenhouse gas) emissions by up to 60%. The long life of a single reusable packaging item eliminates hundreds of single-use packaging items from entering landfill, reducing solid waste by up to 86%. Additionally, the energy used to manufacture reusable packaging items is up to 64% lower than is required to manufacture and recycle the single-use packaging items they replace.


Reverse Logistics

Reuse requires reverse logistics to be set up. This is the series of activities required to retrieve a used product from a customer and either dispose of it or reuse it.

Reverse logistics creates value by turning waste into sales and builds customer trust. Businesses resell, re-use and recycle returned products. Effective reverse logistics keeps down any storage and distribution costs and can reduce a company’s environmental, social and economic impact. At the same time, it can increase a company’s profitability and asset utilization.

The power of combining reduce and reuse and incorporating upcycled/degradable materials is the way forward to maximize impact - you can investigate the expected benefits with a life cycle analysis tool. A LCA (Life Cycle Assessment), considers the entire life cycle of a product, from the extraction and processing of raw materials, through manufacturing and distribution, to final use and disposal, or recycling. This allows us to better understand the connections between the consumption of resources, energy use, waste, and wider environmental challenges like climate change. Through LCA, we can learn how to reduce the environmental impact of a product and make better choices.

Obviously, it is not easy but can be smartly phased within a strategic packaging rethink plan. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has produced a very interesting guide on Upstream Innovation that includes many options that are available today to start having an impact on different types of packaging.

Reverse Logistics

Can businesses shift to a reuse model?


Business models based on reusing or renting goods and services will help to shift consumption patterns away from single or limited-use products.

Plastics are nearly indestructible, taking up to 500 years to fully disappear from our ecosystem. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) is an internationally recognized organization that promotes the concept of a ‘circular economy’, which is about ‘designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use and regenerating natural systems'. 

For this to work, businesses need to find ways to reuse products they already have, and recycle products no longer fit for purpose. For instance, Nike uses worn shoes to make basketball courts and athletics surfaces as part of its Grind project.

Sometimes a complete rethink of how businesses design and package products is the best way to reduce plastic. Reducing the amount of material in a product by just a few grams can make a huge difference across an entire product range. Unilever has cut the weight of its packaging by more than a fifth over the last decade through developing better and lighter designs. Unilever customers can now keep their cleaning spray bottle and reuse it for life. Their ten-times concentrated refill packs use a staggering 75% less plastic and attaches to current bottles.

Many other organizations have also started on their journey to reducing plastic waste. Brands such as McDonalds are phasing out plastic packaging for its meals, ice creams and drinks and instead replacing the material with cardboard or paper – their next project is to move away from the non-recycled polystyrene plastic of the McFlurry® lid to a recyclable polyethylene lid which is made of 40% recycled content. Supermarkets have also recognised the importance of reducing plastics. Bags for life are sold to encourage reuse and they are cutting down ‘own brand’ plastics. In early 2020, Tesco became the first UK retailer to remove plastic wrapped multipacks from its stores and sell loose cans at the same price, a change that has saved 67 million pieces of plastic annually.

Companies such as Coca-Cola, Nestlé and Asda have also all pledged their commitments to reducing their use of plastics, promising that 100% of plastic packaging will be reused, recycled or composted within seven years.

Reducing waste in the supply chain is beneficial to everyone. It encourages using resources more efficiently and designing products and services that meet sustainability goals. However, a movement to a more sustainable, circular economy approach will take new ways of thinking and new ways of behaving. And most importantly it will require everyone, from governments to retailers, manufacturers to consumers, to work together to bring about change.

Annick Van Put - Senior Manager, Zero Waste Packaging Innovation & Solutions

Annick Van Put European Customer Solutions Manager

After 24 years at P&G in Packaging R&D, Strategic Innovation & Category Programme Management, Annick joined CHEP in 2017 and contributed to the Last Mile Solution Product Portfolio extension. She is now in the Zero Waste World team, driving Packaging co-innovation & collaborations with major actors in the Supply Chain, co-designing the solutions of tomorrow for Supply Chain without waste.

Annick holds a Ph D in Science Chemistry at the prestigious Texas A&M & Antwerp University.

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How to Cut Packaging Waste from your Supply Chain | CHEP