The challenges that face a modern retail company can be hugely varied and complex, so finding ways to cut out these complexities while achieving sustainability best practice is a task which requires new ways of thinking.
Many companies now recognise the need to work within a circular economy (CE), where linear business models are replaced by circular ones and where resources are kept in use for as long as possible. For example, when considering product packaging options, real benefits can be found for companies that understand and put into practice smarter solutions for waste reduction, material recovery and reuse.
Moving towards a CE is about collaboration. For DS Smith this means working with companies to find ever more innovative solutions for packaging and recycling processes.
In the linear world, focus was placed on singular parts of the supply chain, without having full visibility of what happens to materials when they have ceased to be of use. But in the circular world, understanding that waste is a resource is a crucial step to take before introducing methods to counteract and eradicate waste.
DS Smith held a workshop earlier in the year to discuss the four key elements – design, collaboration, wastage points and recycling – that companies need to get right when looking to introduce a circular business approach, what it has named a ‘supply cycle’.
The design process of retail packaging considers the type and use of material, including how recyclable it will be at the end of its life. To achieve a sustainable circular approach requires input from all participants.
Retailers or brand owners looking to use just the right amount of packaging, avoid materials that cannot easily be recycled and stick to single-material packs where possible can expect benefits such as reduced waste, reduced costs and increased efficiency. Essentially it is a financial no-brainer.
Delegates to the workshop found innovation to be important to this process, although they raised the issue of working within set management structures where change and costs meant it could be seen as prohibitive.
Considering material substitution and simplifying the materials used can make disassembly and recycling easier. For example, Marks & Spencer introduced a range of recyclable paper ties for securing toys to packaging last Christmas. Invented at Sheffield Hallam University, the ties are made of paper that is strong enough in one direction to hold the product in transit but weak enough in the other to tear with fingers.
The supply chains of many companies are not run efficiently and have a number of wastage points. This waste does not simply come in the form of materials: it also concerns logistics, data management, transportation and processes. Oracle found in its report, The Fragmented Supply Chain, that businesses in the manufacturing, retail, distribution and wholesale sectors missed sales opportunities to the tune of £1.2bn through fragmented supply chains.
Using less volume of material and a simple alteration to the shape of packaging can have a marked difference on waste leakage points. When DS Smith worked with The Saucy Fish Company it used its fluting technology R-Flute, which is the inverted s-shape wave placed between corrugated board to make it strong and rigid, to ensure the finished product is always neat and square on the company’s bake-in-a-bag product. This uses 20% less material than with previous packaging, resulting in more products on every pallet and 20% fewer vehicles on the road.
Effectively implementing the principles of the waste hierarchy is the best way to manage materials within a CE, starting from the top down. This means focusing efforts on waste reduction or reuse as a priority, and not simply settling for sending materials to landfill or energy recovery.
To close the loop on resources, it is important to retrieve the intrinsic value of the material, and that means separating cardboard, glass, metals and plastics for collection. By introducing such source segregation solutions, companies avoid contaminating their recyclable materials and higher quality materials for recycling are collected. This also means that more of the material collected gets used for recycling.
Without doing this, there is every chance that quality materials will be sent to energy from waste, losing any future potential value. Getting the greatest value out of materials will only be achieved once waste is truly regarded as a resource.
It is clear that energy recovery through energy-from-waste initiatives has a role to play, both in energy production and as an option for dealing with non-recyclable waste. But we must put the infrastructure in place to provide the recycling industry with quality materials for recycling.
Working with retailers to provide source-segregated recycling programmes, audit-ing what is being placed into bins and identifying how bins can be rationalised are ways that DS Smith helps to ensure that material quality can be retained. For example, once materials are separated for recycling, it is often possible to reduce the number of bins for general waste at a retailer’s site.
Communication programmes and training sessions are essential to ensure staff members are aware of the value of the materials they are separating for reprocessing. It is also worth considering how to make use of existing logistics processes to backhaul material, reducing the amount of empty vehicle journeys on the roads.
The examples (see boxes) of helping retailers to reduce complexities, costs and waste demonstrate what can be achieved by undertaking a collaborative, innovative approach. The solutions developed for brand owners also help retailers in their sustainability aims, and result in generating less packaging waste, reducing the number of vehicle deliveries and making it easier to store and display the product on shelves.
Taking into account a customer’s economic, social and environmental needs means that, at every stage of the retail supply chain, the most appropriate solution can be found for waste reduction, material recovery and reuse. But we’re only at the start of the journey.
Mathew Prosser is European Commercial Director DS Smith Recycling Division