Large industries are increasingly adopting a more sustainable approach to their packaging, with steel’s durable and infinitely recyclable qualities making it the material of choice for many.
The future is circular. The current extractive economic model of ‘take-make-waste’ is being increasingly questioned as governments and societies face up to the impacts of climate change and pollution. A circular approach instead follows the principles of eliminating waste and ensuring the continual use and reuse of products and materials.
Disposable, single use items have no place in the circular economy and in order to create a model that doesn’t endanger our environment, a fundamental rethink is required. What do we truly need? What should our products be made from? What should happen after we’re done with them?
In the context of the circular economy steel is the ideal material. It can easily be removed from the waste stream due to its magnetic qualities, making it the most recycled material in the world. Not only is it the most recycled, but it is one of the most recyclable as steel can be infinitely remade with no loss of quality.
In the loop
These advantages, combined with steel’s strength and durability, make it perfect for packaging. Packaging performs a vital role in keeping products clean, safe and easily transportable. However, single use packaging is causing damaging pollution to the earth’s environment and large numbers of products are still being packaged in non-recyclable materials.
While the initial energy and resources required to make a recyclable container are higher than for those that are single use, this disparity diminishes over time as reusable items do not need to be re-manufactured.
Steel-made packaging isn’t just reusable it can also be continuously remade into new containers, meaning that it could still be in use hundreds of years from now, while a single use item remains in landfill. Stainless steel packaging can also be continuously cleaned and reused without losing its protective sheen.
It is this thinking that has inspired some of the world’s largest companies to push for more sustainable business models. Unilever has revealed innovative new product designs for reusable packaging across nine of its major brands. These are being tested on their worldwide waste-free shopping system called LOOP™.
Return, refill, repeat
A campaign being trialled in Europe sees touch-free refill machines that will allow customers to reuse containers for certain brands as part of the ‘Return, Refill, Repeat’ concept. New shoppers of Persil will be given reusable stainless-steel bottle of Persil liquid laundry detergent, while returning shoppers will simply refill their existing bottle.
Once they have refilled their bottle, they attach a printable QR code to it and pay for it at the checkout as normal. This QR code enables each bottle to be fully traced, giving Unilever valuable insights into the purchase, use and refill process and how these impact on the circular economy model.
The Dove brand has also launched a refillable deodorant that comes in a “durable, precision-engineered stainless-steel case that’s designed to last a lifetime”.
Dove estimates the refillable deodorant will “help reduce virgin plastic waste by around 30 tonnes in its first year, as the case is made of stainless steel and the refill packaging is made from 98% recycled plastic”. This simple shift in approach brings huge improvements in sustainability with little to no impact on the consumer as each refill clicks into its stylish stainless-steel case with no mess or waste.
Unilever has already conducted a life cycle analysis that shows that the LOOP™ model can massively reduce consumer waste and emissions and the data from the pilot projects will feed into this, further improving the model. When it comes to improving the sustainability of our packaging, it is clear that steel needs a seat at the table.
Images: iStock, Unilever