In a circular economy, upstream innovation is about tracing a problem back to its root cause and tackling it there. It means that rather than working out how to deal with a pile of waste, we prevent it from being created in the first place.
Find out how moving upstream can tackle packaging waste and pollution while generating economic benefits.
The upstream innovation mindset can be used to achieve three key circular economy innovation strategies — elimination, reuse, and material circulation. Backed by more than 110 innovation case examples, we show what good looks like in practice.
There are two different approaches to elimination — direct and innovative.
They differ depending on whether an item of packaging serves an essential function or not. Essential functions include necessary protection, containment, convenience, communication and efficiency.
There are four different business-to-consumer (B2C) reuse models. They differ depending on the ownership of the packaging — i.e. whether the packaging is refilled or returned — and where the refill/return occurs.
Materials can be circulated through a technical process recycling or through a biological process composting (and for some materials, anaerobic digestion).
Looking at material circulation through the lens of plastic packaging, this means there are three main routes to consider:
(1) choosing a plastic type (e.g. PET) and packaging design that can be circulated through a recycling route.
(2) choosing a plastic type (e.g. PHA) and packaging design that can be circulated through a composting route or,
(3) choosing to substitute a different, non-plastic material (e.g. paper) and designing that material for recycling or composting.
There are five key ingredients that underpin successful upstream innovation efforts.
Through in-depth interviews and extensive engagement with businesses, we have identified five key ingredients that support a successful upstream innovation process in the corporate setting.
It is not necessary for all key ingredients to be present all the time, but the presence of at least a few does appear to mean the innovation process is more likely to be successful.