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Huhtamaki EVP: Industry must unite in “co-creation” to establish packaging circular economy

February 5, 2021
Food & Drink

Huhtamaki has hosted its second Think Circle roundtable on “Using Better Regulation to deliver the EU Green Deal.”

PackagingInsights sits down with roundtable co-panelist Thomasine Kamerling, executive vice president of sustainability and communications at Huhtamaki, to discuss legislation opportunities and industry incentivization on the journey to more sustainable packaging.

A panel of six experts from Business Europe, The European Regulation and Innovation Forum, The European Environmental Bureau, Unilever and the European Parliament discussed regulation challenges designed to encourage a circular packaging economy.

“It’s our opportunity but also our responsibility to be brave enough to say ‘we don’t have the answer on this, but can you work with us to find it,’” Kamerling says.

“[The Think Circle roundtable] was an endorsement of what we’re trying to do; a recognition that you cannot do this on your own. It’s not even collaboration [that is needed], it’s a kind of co-creation.”

The Better Regulation agenda is the EU’s approach to evidence-based and transparent EU policy-making.

Encouraging innovation with the carrot and stick
A key theme of the panel discussion was incentivizing innovation from both a business and a consumer perspective. “I’m a big believer in the carrot and stick,” says Kamerling.

On the one hand, financial investments can serve as positive stimuli to innovate away from a linear packaging system.

“When there is no market or certainty, companies are less likely to invest money,” explains Kamerling. “It’s a quid pro quo. Create the framework, create the systems that drive, give kudos to the vanguard for pushing that ahead.”

On the other hand, legislation with set deadlines instills a sense of urgency, ensuring words morph into action, she stresses. But simultaneously, too much pressure from a legislative standpoint can also hinder progress toward a more circular packaging industry.

“[That would be] where you have unintended consequences,” Kamerling explains, meaning legislation created mainly on the back of consumer perceptions or science not sufficiently tested.

Legislative approval of food-grade recycled plastic
Time is also of the essence. Kamerling points out there are currently no environmental alternatives to polymer barriers. “You need to give the industry time to find it out and create it.”

She brings up Huhtamaki’s co-development of recycled PP for Mars brand pet food packs with SABIC as an example of where legislation can provide more guidance.

“We definitely recognize the value of going toward a mono-material,” notes Kamerling. “The thing is recyclable food-grade plastic has not been signed off from a legislative point of view for food contact.”

“As long as that hasn’t happened, you will not have it in mono-materials for food-grade packaging. It’s impossible. This is where the legislation has to pick up and create that framework which enables you to deliver that.”

LCAs and an agnostic approach
The sustainability question of today should focus on making packaging better, not necessarily less of it.

Amid a growing global population, a third of food is wasted. “We want less packaging, but packaging is what prevents food wastage,” argues Kamerling.

While material reductions are desirable, packaging still needs to deliver on its functional purpose. The demonization of plastic is unhelpful, for example, considering plastic materials are highly effective in ensuring product safety and hygiene – and ultimately preventing food waste.

Life cycle assessments (LCAs) are a tool in determining how the “better-not-less” question can best be answered. Last month, Huhtamaki welcomed an LCA revealing single-use packaging may be more environmentally friendly than multi-use.

A truly circular society, therefore, requires an evidence-based and material agnostic approach. “We know we need polymers to act as a barrier for liquids, but there is no viable environmental alternative at the moment.”

“We have to be agnostic of what that material could be as long as you look at the impact it has. I’m not saying that fiber is going to be the material for the next 100,000 years because it may be we find something much better that doesn’t have any impact at all on CO2.”

Final thoughts
In this quest to find “alternatives that make sense,” Kamerling maintains commercial interests and industry cooperation can and should go hand in hand.

“You have to keep it in line with what makes sense for the business, and then take the responsibility of the bits you can make a difference and work with others where you can’t.”

The Think Circle event on EU Better Regulation was the second in a series of upcoming roundtables to continue cross-industry discussions.

The first, hosted around Huhtamaki’s 100th anniversary in November, initially drew a larger audience.

However, this was expected considering the “Designing for circularity” theme and how EU regulation was designed to attract a more select audience.

Next month, the company will host one on the role of digitization in sustainability and in the future, it will promote discourse on environment, society and governance (ESG) in Finnish for local audiences.

The co-creation of a circular packaging system arrives as a Venn diagram, Kamerling illustrates. “We look at it in terms of what society needs, what we are passionate about and what we do. In the middle is where we sit.”

“The sustainability question has been going on forever. It’s not a discussion that started yesterday. Perhaps as a Dutch person, I’m very pragmatic: so less talk and more action.”

By Anni Schleicher


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