Driving a circular economy in manufacturing

With energy efficiency and building a circular economy having made their way to the forefront of many a business agenda, clients across the manufacturing spectrum are now demanding sustainability initiatives and strategic plans from the companies they work with. Manufacturers across a wide range of industries are now being challenged to rethink how they design, produce, and distribute their products to adhere to a more regenerative process. This is due to a pressing but rightful demand from consumers and stakeholders for increased transparency throughout the supply chain as well as more eco-conscious manufacturing processes. These industries are now facing a business imperative to re-evaluate their products in terms of lifecycles and reusability.

Many businesses are doing audits of their carbon emissions and finding up-to-date data to enable the setting of emission reduction targets. CO2 calculations have been a focus for most industries but businesses are now working hard to understand how many emissions are related to an individual product.

The manufacturing of a product is a fragmented process – there are so many layers added to the production line over its conception that it’s extremely difficult to produce a fully sustainable product. Many companies simply don’t have eyes on the entire end-to-end process. They may on certain parts of it, but to have visibility on everything from packaging, cardboard, and label to the product itself, bottle pump, etc., is extremely difficult.

For example, glass manufacturers like Stoelzle or Verallia can only ensure sustainable practices within the production of the glass bottle container, but they can’t be responsible for the entire lifecycle of the product and how it’s recycled, especially if there are additional elements like plastic pumps/lids etc. As businesses grow, they also need to plan for how to increase the production of their items without simultaneously increasing the amount of emissions they produce.

Glass is especially struggling with this. According to Peter Firth from Glass Container Manufacturing Consulting Ltd, there needs to be a general culture change in glass recycling: “Glass is infinitely recyclable, but this is currently not so in practice only because the recycling loop is not complete; and the glass industry is not fully in control of it, local municipalities are.” Glass plants struggle to try new ways of working as their furnaces are operating 24/7, meaning that they don’t have much opportunity to experiment with alternative sources of energy.

Through his glass container consultancy company, Peter Firth works on contract with Glass Futures and to help the glass industry. Glass Futures are currently building a R&D glass plant to experiment with new methods of energy consumption and provide that data back to glass businesses so they don’t have to sacrifice their own production. In the glass world, one of the best ways to start curbing emissions is through focusing on glass collection and single-colour glass recycling. Recycling cullet is the easiest energy saver, but it is unfortunately not a big focus for local authorities. This results in glass losing its ‘infinitely recyclable’ selling point.

Arguably nearly every company is making strides to help reduce their environmental impact or is at least taking the initiative seriously. Some of these include:

  • Heinz-Glas: Heinz-Glas was recently approved to become part of Science-Based Targets initiative (SBTi), an organisation which helps companies enact strategic, significant action against climate change by evaluating their processes and helping them pinpoint areas where they can make effective improvements. Heinz-Glas will gain certificates around this initiative and they are passionate about striving towards these targets. They are within an energy-intensive industry and the company sees sustainability as a priority, willing to fund necessary solutions. Speaking to Bartosz Stentoft – Country Director Poland, they have also recently opened a joint venture in China, which helps reduce emissions by eliminating the need for shipping. This is the latest in a series of businesses ‘onshoring’ their manufacturing practices.
  • Sidel: According to Francesca Bellucci, Sustainability Director at Sidel, the company has always had sustainability in its DNA. Now they are harvesting results from years of research and development, able to offer very low energy consumption machines and low carbon emission packaging solutions. Sidel also gave a further boost to their sustainability initiatives by joining R-Cycle, which is an open-source tracing standard for sustainable plastic packaging. R-Cycle develops ‘digital passports’ that can be “automatically accessed and recorded by any production machinery along the value chain, from packaging manufacturers and converters to the recycling industry. This helps create recycling-friendly and pure materials for re-processing into a wide range of high-grade plastic products.” All Sidel production sites will be powered by green energy by the end of 2022 and in Italy, their operations are moving to being self-powered by solar, replacing 25% of their heating capacities with solar energy, while aiming for 60% eventually. They hope to do the same in their China plants in the future. This is part of Sidel’s overall capex budget plan to help them lower emissions overall
  • Ardagh: The packaging giant is looking at leveraging hydrogen gas and biofuels as potential energy resources. According to some experts, the quality of such resources needs to be tested more. The same issue persists for electricity for melting glass, and it’s expensive. Peter Firth said, “We need to regain ground from plastic containers, aim to get products back into glass, but how can we do this cheaply, if fuels and electric are increasing?
  • SCHOTT: Schott is a leading specialty glass company that boasts the ambitious goal of becoming the first glass manufacturer to reach net zero by 2030. What’s surprising is that they appear to be on track to reach this milestone. They have recently concluded Corporate Power Purchase Agreements with ENGIE from solar and wind plants which is a great step in a positive direction. There are many more businesses taking on similar initiatives for driving a more circular economy.


Sustainability initiatives continue to be a business imperative and are proving to be an effective means of talent retention. Circular economy and reducing emissions is clearly a key reason for aspiring to join a new company.

Making sustainability a priority will only help businesses with attracting high-quality talent with the right skillset to pioneer the future initiatives. As sustainability as a general goal still struggles to be standardised, different businesses’ targets can vary wildly. This, coupled with prolonged economic uncertainty, is having a huge impact on the pace by which these businesses will reach their desired results. One common objective for businesses is net-zero by 2030 – while this is a stretch for many, some companies may find themselves within reach of this target, provided on the level of investment they’re willing to make in their sustainability initiatives and the quality of the talent they attract to help them achieve said goal.

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