Everybody in the value chain can contribute to recycling

Interview with Jorge Serrano, Head of Member Companies and Ecodesign at Ecoembes

Sustainability 1 Nov 2019

Ecoembes is a non-profit environmental organization that coordinates recycling and packaging eco-design in Spain. Henkel is one of its first members and has been collaborating with the Ecoembes recycling system for more than 20 years – by adding the “green point” (punto verde) symbol to its packaging and promoting a circular economy, for example.

Mr. Serrano, a circular economy will only be possible if everyone contributes – from manufacturers through to retailers and consumers: Where do you currently see the greatest need for action?

Every participant in the value chain is equally necessary and responsible for helping to make the circular economy a reality. It would be pointless for a manufacturer to promote measures that make its products more sustainable unless there was also enough social awareness to encourage consumers to use products sustainably and recycle packaging effectively. However, it’s true that we’re at a point where citizens are demanding more action from companies. That’s why it’s essential that companies return consumers’ trust by creating products and services that meet their expectations in every way – including protecting the environment.

The packaging recycling process in Spain is an example of a circular economy model that requires active participation from the whole of society. Through the Green Point, companies help to make sure packaging is recyclable after the product has been used. But this system is made possible because citizens deposit packaging in collection containers and because local governments collect and sort waste.

Jorge Serrano, Head of Member Companies and Ecodesign at Ecoembes

Jorge Serrano, Head of Member Companies and Ecodesign at Ecoembes

Is it more important to optimize individual steps in the value chain or to synchronize and coordinate all participants and process steps more effectively?

I think both are very important! At Ecoembes, we coordinate efforts to optimize every phase of the recycling system – and this improves the entire process that companies, citizens and local governments participate in together. Regulation must support the pace demanded by society, while companies must respond to citizens, and citizens must be consistent with their demands. The recycling process won’t work effectively if any of these parts fails, or if the system is not consistent. Innovation is the key to continuously optimizing this system, and innovation is present in every step, from packaging design through to collection, sorting and recycling.

To achieve a circular economy, companies need to produce sustainable packaging that also extends the shelf life of food and prevents food waste. Does designing for recycling have an impact on the shelf life of food? What challenges does the packaging industry face?

Sustainable packaging designs directly impact the shelf life of products. Studies show that the environmental impact of a product that is not consumed because of damaged or faulty packaging is much greater than the impact caused by excessive packaging. Many industries have already reached the limit of reducing the amount of packaging material they use – which leaves very few options for further weight reduction. That’s why I expect the future to be shaped by a strong commitment to eco-design strategies that are more focused on improving recyclability and increasing the use of recycled materials in new packaging.

Companies need to find the most sustainable packaging for their products, but they can also adapt their products for more sustainable packaging. Can you give an example of this?

In the laundry sector, product concentration is a strong example of how product reformulation can have positive consequences for sustainable packaging. A more concentrated detergent in a 35-gram bottle can wash the same amount of laundry as less concentrated detergent in an 80-gram bottle. Applying a holistic approach to Life Cycle Analysis is usually the smartest strategy to identify and implement this type of improvement.

Achieving a circular economy will require new technologies and methods. What examples are you excited about?

I’m convinced that new technologies will accelerate the transition to a circular economy. Artificial intelligence, for example, can make it possible to recognize how full a container is. For recycling, this can improve waste collection approaches and save fuel – which makes recycling more sustainable.

AIR-e is another example of this technology being applied. It’s an intelligent recycling assistant that aims to give an immediate response to any doubts or questions about recycling that a citizen may have. We created AIR-e in TheCircularLab, the first innovation center for the circular economy in Europe that is focused on packaging. It involves a robot that uses voice, text and image recognition to identify the type of waste the citizen has a question about. It then uses automatic learning techniques to maintain and update its database.

In Spain, seven out of ten containers are currently recycled. This places Spain among Europe’s top countries for packaging recycling. What can other countries learn from Spain’s example?

Spain ranks sixth out of the 28 European Union member countries in terms of how much packaging is recycled. We achieved a recycling rate of 70.3 percent in 2016 (source: Eurostat) and this places us above the European average of 68 percent and ahead of countries including Austria, Finland, France, Italy, Norway and Sweden. This is very positive – and domestic packaging materials like bricks, cardboard, metal, paper and plastic that are managed by Ecoembes are making an important contribution.

Packaging is the most recycled form of waste in Spain, although it only represents 8 percent of the total municipal waste generated in our country. This is because other types of waste like textiles or organic waste – which account for almost 40 percent of the total waste generated – are not yet being recycled. Public-private collaborations for recycling are moving us toward a circular economy by promoting innovation and creating green jobs. This collaboration could serve as an example for other waste materials that involve greater volumes but that are not currently recycled, and this could significantly accelerate progress toward a true circular economy.