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How to Bridge the Gap Between the Packaging Sector and Circular Economy

Postdoctoral Fellowship | 16/09/2016

The aim of this project was to develop a decision support framework for the development of continuous loop packaging systems which combines two approaches, i.e. eco-efficiency, by using Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), and eco-effectiveness through the Cradle to Cradle® (C2C) design framework.

By PhD Monia Niero, Technical University of Denmark

Packaging is part of our everyday life, but the shift towards a more towards sustainable production requires decoupling economic growth from resource constraints, i.e. a circular economy. To address the challenges posed by the circular economy in the packaging sector, such as maximising value at each point in a product´s life cycle, a multidisciplinary approach is needed and different strategies can be combined. The aim of the project was to develop a decision support framework for the development of continuous loop packaging systems which combines two approaches, i.e. eco-efficiency, by using Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), and eco-effectiveness through the Cradle to Cradle® (C2C) design framework. The framework was conceived for aluminium cans in the context of the Carlsberg Circular Community, a cooperation platform between Carlsberg and a selection of global partners aiming at developing innovations and practical solutions optimised for the circular economy, but it can also be applied by any other company familiar with the two approaches. For aluminium cans the main recommendation from both the LCA and C2C perspectives is to ensure a system that enables can-to-can recycling. The suggested framework can be applied and adapted by any other company, familiar with both LCA and C2C design framework to assure the development of long-term strategies based on the creation of both economic and environmental value.  

1. A Call for Companies to Sustainably Manage and Use Natural Resources

Ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns is one of the 17 Global Goals set in the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Specific targets are identified to tackle this societal challenge, e.g. to achieve by 2030 the sustainable management and efficient use of natural resources and to encourage companies, especially large and transnational companies, to adopt sustainable practices. The shift towards sustainable production and consumption patterns requires decoupling economic growth from resource constraints. The main implication at the company level is the need to adapt the business model, i.e. how a business delivers and creates value in the value chain, to the circular economy model, where profitability should be decoupled from resource constraints, e.g. maximising the use of residuals by reducing and, when possible, eliminating waste.
“The EU Action Plan for the Circular Economy will be instrumental in reaching the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, in particular Goal 12 of ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns” (EC, 2015).

2. Circular Economy and the Packaging Sector 

The circular economy contrasts with the linear economy, based on the “take-make-use-waste” paradigm, where resources are taken, utilise making products which after being used become waste. Two groups of circular-economy business models can be identified: those aiming at products’ reuse and service life extension through repair and remanufacture and those focusing on turning end-of-life products into as-new resources by recycling the materials (Stahel, 2016), see Figure 1. The last one is relevant for one-way packaging, which is given high priority in the circular economy agenda, since it is mainly discarded after use, entering the waste stream after a use period of typically less than a year.

Figure 1. A graphical representation of the linear economy (based on take-make-use-waste) and the circular economy, based on re-use, repair, re-make and recycling, with the objective to maximise value at each point in a product’s life.

The frequency of purchases and high volumes associated with consumer products means that consumers buy large amounts of packaging— an estimated 207 million tonnes globally with a value of USD 384 billion each year (EMF, 2013 Towards the circular economy Vol.2 - Opportunities for the consumer goods sector).

The traditional approach to packaging and sustainability is based on the eco-efficiency concept, i.e. adding maximum value with minimum resource use and minimum pollution . The most widespread tool able to quantify improvements in terms of eco-efficiency is the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) methodology. LCA is a comprehensive assessment of all potential environmental impacts connected with a product system throughout its life cycle, i.e. from raw materials extraction to the end of life. The typical life cycle of an aluminium can is presented in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Life cycle of aluminium can from raw and auxiliary materials extraction, filling and packing, distribution, use and end of life (Niero et al. 2016).

C2C is a design framework based on three key principles

• “Waste equals food”: Everything is a resource for something else
• “Using current solar income”: Energy should be renewable
• “Celebrate diversity”: There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution

A broader approach oriented towards product quality and innovation is the Cradle to Cradle® (C2C) design framework. C2C aims to increase the positive footprint of products by designing “eco-effective” solutions, i.e. maximising the benefit to ecological and economic systems and advocating the use of materials in continuous loops(Braungart et al., 2007).

“To ensure that industry delivers its essential contribution to society and does it within the absolute boundaries of sustainability, we need to introduce a focus on eco- effectiveness together with the traditional focus on eco- efficiency in our industrial development. First we have the challenge of identifying what are the right things to do and then we must do them right,” says prof. Michael Z. Hauschild, Head of the Division for Quantitative Sustainability Assessment, DTU Management Engineering.

3. Practicing Circularity: Carlsberg Circular Community

One of the targets under the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) “Ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns” is by 2030 to substantially reduce waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling, and reuse. The sustainable packaging programme of Carlsberg Group, the fourth largest global brewery in the world, is based on four different strategies aligned with this target: Reduce , Recycle , Reuse , and Rethink.

To allow companies to market their progress in applying the C2C vision, the Cradle to Cradle Certified™ Product standard, i.e. a certification program, has been developed, based on five criteria: Material health, Material reutilisation, Renewable energy & Carbon management, Water stewardship and Social fairness.

With regard to this last point, the C2C design framework inspired the creation in January 2014 of the Carlsberg Circular Community. This is a cooperation platform involving Carlsberg and a selection of global partners, aiming at rethinking the design and production of traditional packaging material, with the ambition to develop packaging products that are optimised for recycling and reuse, while retaining their quality and their value. 
In the context of the Carlsberg Circular Community the aim of this project was to identify how the LCA methodology and the C2C design framework can be combined in the design of eco-efficient and eco-effective beer packaging systems. The scientific challenge was to combine both approaches in a decision support framework for beverage packaging companies implementing a continuous loop packaging system.
“The circular economy is of particular interest to Carlsberg because our products depend on well-functioning natural systems and a stable supply of raw materials. We are working in this area through our partnership platform – the Carlsberg Circular Community – to develop innovations and practical solutions optimised for the circular economy,” says Prof. Flemming Besenbacher in his foreword to the report “Delivering the circular economy – a toolkit for policymakers” by the Ellen Mac Arthur Foundation, 2015.
The suggested framework to combine eco-efficiency and eco-effectiveness is based on a stepwise procedure that can be applied while assessing the potentials for establishing continuous loop beverage packaging systems, see Figure 3.  

Figure 3. Framework for the assessment of closed-product loop beverage packaging system, based on stepwise procedure combining features from Life Cycle Assessment, C2C certification program and business models analysis.

4. The Hamlet Dilemma for Aluminium Cans: To Be or not to Be in a Closed Product Loop?

The circular economy promotes the use of resources in continuous loops. But to what extent should products be kept in closed loop? We considered the case of aluminium cans and by combining both LCA  and the inspiration provided by the C2C design framework we aimed to answer the Hamlet dilemma of such packaging: TO BE or NOT TO BE in a closed product loop? 

Aluminium cans are composed of two main parts, the body and the lid, made of two different wrought alloys. Since both are high quality aluminium alloy, it is key to keep their economic value and from an environmental point of view (considering the impacts on climate change) we showed that it is better to make aluminium cans out of used beverage can scraps rather than used mixed aluminium packaging scraps (Niero and Olsen, 2016). The main learnings from the C2C certification for the aluminium can were: substances even at ppm level, often originating from additives giving the desired functional properties to the base material, have an impact on value and recyclability; ensuring recyclability, e.g. through the optimisation of the lacquer, is a prerequisite for high recycled content  (Niero et al. 2016). The main learnings from the combined application of LCA and C2C for the aluminium can is to design packaging for “zero contamination”, since  high quality recycling can only happen when the materials are not contaminated, either by other materials or through contamination by the content (Niero and Olsen, 2016). For aluminium cans the main recommendation from both the LCA and C2C perspective is to ensure a system that enables can-to-can recycling, or in other words TO BE in a closed product loop.
“After these two exciting years of research in the field of circular economy, I believe that the main challenge in the circular economy agenda is to manage the complexity of product systems. It is not a matter of reinventing the wheel, but to combine the knowledge  from different research fields, such as industrial ecology, economics, and sustainability science to provide both eco-efficient and eco-effective solutions. But without shifting burdens, and this is where collaboration between academia and industry is essential since you need practical case studies to validate a vision,” says Monia Niero.

To see how LCA can be used to compare the environmental impact associated with different levels of two C2C certification requirements and for an overview of the main challenges and drawbacks in the combined use of LCA and C2C for packaging within the circular economy framework, see Niero et al. (2016).

How the Grant from the Carlsberg Foundation has Affected My Career

With the Carlsberg Foundation’s Postdoctoral Fellowship I had the opportunity to consolidate my position at the Division for Quantitative Sustainability Assessment, Department of Management Engineering at the Technical University of Denmark. I was able to independently perform tasks that are relevant for pursuing a research career, such as initial development of my own research field, supervision of master students, and participation in recognised international conferences, workshops, and symposia. This project has given me not only the possibility to develop the scientific framework, but most of all the privilege to have a constant dialogue with stakeholders in industry and circular economy experts. The framework developed during the project was conceived in the context of a private and public collaboration, i.e. between Carlsberg A/S and the Technical University of Denmark. It can be applied and adapted by any company, familiar with both LCA and C2C certification program in the implementation of circularity strategies, which is its social impact. Private-public collaborations are indeed essential to tackle the societal challenges that we face in the 21st century, such as ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns and implementing the circular economy.


Braungart M., McDonough W, Bollinger A. (2007). Cradle-to-cradle design: creating healthy emissions - a strategy for eco-effective product and system design. Journal of Cleaner Production, 15(13-14), 1337–1348

EC (2015) COM (2015) 614 Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions. Closing the loop - An EU action plan for the Circular Economy.

EMF (2013) Towards the Circular Economy Vol. 2: opportunities for the consumer goods sector. Ellen MacArthur Foundation. pp. 1-44.

Niero, M., A.J. Negrelli, S.H. Boas, S.I. Olsen, and M. Birkved. 2016. Closing the loop for aluminium cans: Life Cycle Assessment of progression in Cradle-to-Cradle certification levels. Journal of Cleaner Production 126; 352-362.

Niero, M., Olsen. S.I. (2016) Circular economy: to be or not to be in a closed product loop ? A Life Cycle Assessment of aluminium cans with inclusion of alloying elements. Resources, Conservation and Recycling 114; 18–31.

Stahel, W. (2016) The circular economy. Nature 531, 435–438.