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Making the packaging industry circular

As much as I love the European Forum Alpbach, it isn't a place known for small egos.

Hence, I was thrilled by the title of Mondi Group's session that I got to moderate: "From the ego to the eco system!"

How can we turn the packaging industry into a circular model and reduce, reuse and recycle packaging instead of throwing it away? And, where is our ego in the way of doing so? What are our blind spots? What are we choosing not to see?

Growing up in an averagely environmentally conscious home, I thought I knew the basics of recycling. Far off. Diving deep into this topic (and my ignorance), I was still shocked by the size of the waste problem - and the current status of our recycling systems.

According to the UN, we produce 11.2 billion tons of solid waste annually.

Out of the plastic waste (around 400 million tons) - only about 10% (!) gets recycled. The rest gets burned (hello, CO2 emissions!), ends up in landfills far, far away, or in turtle bellies in the ocean (and I really do love turtles). So what needs to be done?

Spoiled by the most beautiful scenery, we discussed this question with Thomas Ott (Mondi), Thomas Rudelt (Metro), Carole Manceau (World Food Program) and Harald Katzmair (FAS Research). What we learned wasn't rosy either, but important to know:

- Black plastic bottles (e.g. the ones for dark washing) can't be detected by lasers in recycling factories and hence - cannot be recycled.

- Packaging made of different types of material can't be separated by machines and hence - cannot be recycled.

- The recycling symbol we think we understand (3 arrows in a triangle/ "der grüne Punkt") often indicates that the product could technically be recycled - but not that it will be!!

- Because, far too often, the infrastructure to do so is just not there!

So, again what to do? Here, FASresearch came in with a really helpful tool that we worked through with about 100 participants, a so-called "situation room". It allowed us to 1) list all factors that help to create a circular packaging chain, 2) discover their interdependencies and 3) see the factors that have the biggest impact within the network and, by that, the ones we need to start working on! Top of our list: legal framework, awareness rising, a shift from ego to eco and increasing the convenience factor.

This might sound obvious, and our ego might still frown at it, discard it or try to ignore it. But if we dare to go a bit deeper, past that nagging voice, we might discover, what often lies behind our boisterous egos is nothing but fear, pain and insecurity of not knowing how to cope. And only if we dare to listen to that fear, pain and insecurity will we be able to overcome it - and emerge from our self-centred world into a so-called eco-system.

And this, I believe, is where things will suddenly start moving again, ideas can circulate, and we, together, can find solutions.

Special thanks to Beatrix Praeceptor & Bettina Pepek for taking me on this ride!

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