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Upstream Innovation:
a guide to packaging solutions

The Upstream Innovation guide tells how to harness the power of upstream innovation as a root-cause solution to plastic waste.

What is upstream innovation?

Why consider upstream innovation?

The mindset

Rethinking the packaging, product, and business model to prevent and design out packaging waste 

Upstream innovation requires a shift in mindset, beyond focusing on incremental packaging improvements. It is about rethinking how we get products and services to users without creating waste.

The three strategies

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.

The two approaches to elimination

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.

Examples of elimination

Read more about elimination on p.36 in the full guide.
The four consumer facing models - and a note on B2B

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.

Examples of reuse

Read more about reuse on p.72 in the full guide.
The three routes for plastic material circulation

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.

Examples of material circulation

Read more about material circulation on p.116 in the full guide.

Making it happen

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.

Read how the five key ingredients contributed to four successful innovations on p. 166 in the guide.

Here you will also find additional guidance on making upstream decisions and the role of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) in upstream innovation.

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