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Creating a Circular Packaging Value Chain: How collaboration with suppliers helps converters meet brand owner demands

Photo courtesy of NOVA Chemicals

By John Avolio, Value Chain Manager, NOVA Chemicals

Brands owners are making big changes in an effort to reduce waste, lower greenhouse gas emissions, and increase recycling rates. The Consumer Brands Association reports that all of the 25 largest Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) companies have made commitments related to making their packaging more sustainable, and the majority of those companies have pledged to deliver fully recyclable packaging by 2030.

Tackling the problem of unmanaged plastic waste is a key part of the sustainability movement. Packaging is a large contributor (37 percent according to the US EPA) to plastic waste that ends up in landfills, and consumer preferences, retailer requirements, and legislation are all driving brands to reexamine their packaging design and practices to support a circular economy. Unfortunately, flexible packaging formats like bags and pouches are under intense scrutiny due to their historically low recycling rates. However, their material efficiency and low carbon footprint compared to other materials create a promising outlook for improved designs.

As more brands seek to overhaul their packaging design, new technologies have emerged that take the full lifecycle of plastic products into account. There is a great deal of opportunity for collaboration across the value chain to accelerate change in the way packaging is produced and recycled. Resin suppliers can help converters meet the demands of brands and CPG companies through the sharing of knowledge and resources to create scalable, sustainable packaging solutions.

How have new products been created in the past?

Prior to the collaborative work now taking place across the packaging industry, brands would typically tackle packaging circularity in silos. They were overloaded with information and statistics but lacked knowledge about the realities of material supply chains and existing recycling infrastructure. When they acted in isolation like this, there was often a lack of clarity on the best approach to identify the most effective solutions for circular packaging design.

As resin suppliers tended to work independently, they would often develop new products without having clarity on the exact needs of converters, brands, and consumers. After developing a new product, suppliers would bring it to converters. Converters would then have to spend time tweaking and qualifying the product to fit their production processes until they were ready to offer it to their brand and CPG customers. Suppliers and converters invested time and money into developing products that could ultimately still require more adjustments to meet brand requirements.

How does supplier collaboration affect commercialization of new technology?

By connecting resin suppliers directly with converters and brands in the early phases of new projects, the teams quickly eliminate the information silos that have plagued product innovation and commercialization. Resin suppliers have started to become trusted advisors that help converters navigate brand demands by collaborating to develop circular solutions and contributing their expertise to commercialize new packaging products faster.

By involving resin suppliers from the start, brands also have an opportunity to strengthen supply chain resiliency for recycling and recycled plastic materials. Collaborative networks can enable supply agreements and other business models that increase the economic viability of circular materials and practices.

What are some of the most common requests from brands?

Brands want to understand how packaging innovations impact their brand visibility, shelf-appeal, product performance and overall operations. Many companies are working to increase their supply chain traceability and transparency to measure their complete environmental impacts, and suppliers can be integral in helping brands reduce their scope 3 emissions. 

In addition, governments and retailers are introducing requirements regarding recycled content and packaging recyclability. Brands are focused on designing for recyclability to comply with these regulations and address consumer demand for more sustainable products. This involves a holistic approach to R&D that considers where packaging materials come from, how they are used, and how they can be collected and repurposed.

How can suppliers help converters introduce new packaging materials into their offerings, e.g. recycled content, fully recyclable structures, etc.?

The right suppliers will have the technical expertise to help converters transition their operations to incorporate new materials and processes. By working with converters upfront, suppliers can help remove unnecessary time and money spent on trials to design viable products more quickly. They can help converters manage equipment adjustments and run conditions to make the use of a new material, such as a post-consumer recycled (PCR) resin, run smoothly.

Suppliers can share information regarding material sources and performance as well, which is particularly important for food contact applications. Recycled content can affect how a finished product looks and feels, and suppliers can help converters and brands be prepared for these differences.

The capabilities of packaging are constantly evolving. Resin suppliers can keep converters up to date on the latest innovations in materials and manufacturing technologies, as well as identify opportunities to shift to more sustainable options. For example, non-recyclable multilayer laminate structures can be replaced with monomaterial, fully recyclable pouches that meet the same performance requirements of the original product.

What does the future of the packaging value chain look like?

Collaboration and knowledge sharing is here to stay. Suppliers and brands are creating and filling roles focused on bringing together players from across the value chain. New forums are being created to facilitate the gathering of industry leaders to discuss challenges, successes, lessons learned, and more. For example, we at NOVA Chemicals developed a Brand Owner Bootcamp event that pulls in brands from across North America to have open discussions about their challenges and successes when transitioning to more circular packaging. The collaboration between the brand owners has helped drive continued education about sustainability and has even resulted in real problems being solved as peers from different industries gained new perspectives and knowledge they could put into action.

Closed Loop Partners identifies partnership as one of the four key drivers of the system-level changes required to build a circular economy. Through collaboration across all stages of packaging design and production, the unified efforts of key stakeholders help accelerate advancements at scale that will help brands meet their sustainability goals and support true economic circularity.


Many people in the industry are working hard to make meaningful progress towards circular flexible packaging products. In a recent sustainable packaging report, Bain & Company suggests that companies who embrace circular economy principles early and address packaging challenges by forging alliances will come out on top. It is a large feat to shift an industry from linear to circular, but by strengthening relationships between resin suppliers, converters, and brand owners, we can learn from our trials and work together to create tangible changes for a better world.


John Avolio is the polyethylene value chain manager at NOVA Chemicals. He has two decades of experience in the packaging, plastics and chemicals industry. He is passionate about helping customers, partners and brand owners design sustainable packaging. He earned his B.S. in Plastics Engineering from The Pennsylvania State University (Erie campus).  

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