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Closing the Loop

Impact Entrepreneurship in the German Packaging Industry

How much waste do you produce in a year? The average German is responsible for 228 kg of packaging waste per year, mainly consisting of paper, wood, metal, glass, and plastic. Until 50 years ago, traditional packaging included paper, wood, and glass. Since then, plastics — so-called synthetic polymers because they are composed of polymers — have become increasingly popular. Reasons for this include their availability, light weight, low cost, and transparency. What is more, the usage of synthetic plastics is expected to rise dramatically through 2050.

Fortunately, in contrast to less-developed countries, Germany has advanced waste-management systems, so that it can reduce the environmental impacts caused by synthetic polymers. However, following common standards, only part of the created waste can be recycled while the rest undergoes incineration or landfilling, thereby polluting the air and the environment. Still, the end-of-life phase of discarded materials is not the only environmental issue: the production of goods also requires large amounts of energy and resources in the manufacturing and design process while simultaneously discharging dangerous emissions into the air. Many individuals are already changing their consumption patterns in order to produce less waste (e.g. Zero-waste-lifestyle, packaging-free shops). Yet, these changes are happening mainly on the individual level. Changes in the economy and politics, such as the ban of free plastic bags in supermarkets in 2018, are still scarce and have minimal impact. What society may need is a push toward the transformation to a circular economy — and who would be better suited to facilitate this transition than impact entrepreneurs?

Two women circular economy business

Sophia, one of INN.MYBAG’s founders testing recycled materials with their first employee

Reacting to the current challenges, many impact entrepreneurs are changing, creating, and re-inventing business models to suit the requirements of our time. For this purpose, they are addressing different phases of a product’s life cycle. Recyda, a young, yet quickly growing tech start-up from Freiburg focuses on the production side, by eliminating waste in the packaging life cycle. The company states that, “While many companies know about climate change, environmental problems, and particularly waste, we found that they are simply overwhelmed by the complexity of the packaging issue and have thus not responded adequately to it yet. We offer a software tool that companies can use to analyze the recyclability of their packaging on an international level, and are offered support in optimising their packaging solutions for a circular economy”. Since the founding of their start-up, the three founders have already received great interest in their idea and are collaborating with several market leaders. Their success proves that companies are interested in transforming their processes and, thus, responding to social challenges.

While Recyda tackles issues during the manufacturing stage, another young start-up from Passau in Germany, INN.MYBAG, has analysed a problematic, common practice towards the end-of-life phase: “Companies use physical advertising banners for specific occasions. However, when these are over, what happens to said banners? Nothing, so far, except for their disposal”, says Anne, one of INN.MYBAG’s founders. “We have created a way to make use of and, thus, re-use and recycle these products by transforming them into fashionable items, such as bags, laptop covers, and cases”. The start-up has created a way for their customers, individuals, as well as companies to upcycle the old banners into unique and stylish items while, at the same time, promoting a sustainable lifestyle. Furthermore, by employing refugees to sew those products, they are simultaneously adding a social dimension to their business.

Recyda, a young, yet quickly growing tech start-up from Freiburg focuses on the production side, by eliminating waste in the packaging life cycle.

This approach may not suit all products and their wrappings, as 50% of all packaging concerns the food sector. Food and health requirements, in particular, constrict the number of alternatives: packaging should ensure safe transportation while guaranteeing the durability of the contents and the preservation of food quality. So far, it is common practice to use fossil fuel-based polymers for this. However, due to their complex composites, these kinds of plastic are difficult to recycle or reuse. Thus, when it comes to the end-of-life stage of the materials, there are currently two solutions, the first one being packages designed by using monomers — allowing for higher recyclability. This approach is preferred by the German packaging start-up Packiro, which asserts that “the difference with traditional synthetic polymers is that all of our layers consist of the very same material. This way, our products do not require separation in waste-management systems and are recycled directly. The recycled material can be used to create new products.” The other alternative lies in the evolving branch of biobased and biodegradable packages. Popular materials in usage are starch, cellulose, and PTA. Even though they may be lacking some of the properties of plastics, they are compostable, thus directly feeding back into nature. Taking a step back from those two solutions, another approach remains: producing less food to be packaged in the first place. Reducing the amount of wasted content and extending shelf lives could be one of the most efficient ways to save on packaging materials.

INN.MYBAG has created a way for their customers, individuals, as well as companies to upcycle the old banners into unique and stylish items while, at the same time, promoting a sustainable lifestyle.

One way or another, all of the highlighted entrepreneurs are actively eliminating waste. They promote responsible consumption as well as production by tackling the production processes of packaging industries as well as the end-of-life spans of products. They serve as an inspiration for developed businesses, economies, and politics to re-invent and re-design production, processes, and mindsets, leading to more sustainable lifestyles in Germany.

After having written her master thesis on “Cultural Evolution and Climate Change”, Nelly Rahimy is now research assistant for Sustainable Entrepreneurship at the University of Passau in Germany. At the same time, she is founding her own start-up which is concerned with women empowerment in agriculture.

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