Upstream Innovation

8 February 2021

This is intended as a practical guide to help organisations innovate towards achieving their circular economy goals for packaging. Packed with practical tips, decision support frameworks, and case studies, it is designed for marketers, product designers, and packaging engineers new to the idea of a circular economy for packaging, as well as for seasoned practitioners. Copies of the full report can be downloaded through the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Two types of innovation are needed to achieve a circular economy. This report focuses upstream.

Upstream Innovation
Rethinks products and services at the design stage. For example, this can include developing new materials, product designs, or business models.

Downstream Innovation
Affects a product or material after its first use. For example, this can include developing new collection, sorting, and recycling technologies.

What is upstream innovation?

Treating the root cause of a problem, rather than the symptoms, is fundamental to finding a solution that truly tackles the issue. If you leave a bath running and it starts overflowing, for example, the only real solution is to turn off the taps. Mopping up the mess with the water still flowing wouldn't solve the problem — you need to ensure no more mess is going to be made. This is the essence of tackling the root cause of a problem — moving upstream.
The same principle applies when we talk about waste. In a circular economy, upstream innovation means that rather than working out how to deal with a pile of waste, we work out how to prevent the waste from being created in the first place.
Upstream innovation is about preventing waste from ever being created.

Why consider upstream innovation?

By redesigning products, materials and services, it is possible to prevent waste from being created in the first place. For example, Coca-Cola’s reuse model for PET bottles, operating in Latin America, prevents the production of 1.8 billion single-use bottles per year.3


Plastic pollution has attracted widespread public attention, and customers increasingly reward brands that deliver real solutions on plastics and beyond. For example, in 2018, Unilever’s Sustainable Living Brands* grew 69% faster than the rest of the business, delivering 75% of the company’s growth.4


Finding new ways of delivering products while designing out waste can lead to business benefits, such as cost savings, brand loyalty and user convenience. For example, shifting just 20% of plastic packaging from single-use to reuse is an upstream innovation opportunity estimated to be worth USD 10 billion.5
Many solutions that design out waste also design out carbon emissions. For example, SodaStream (acquired by PepsiCo in 2018), which enables customers to make sparkling water at home, reduces carbon emissions by up to 87% compared to sparkling water sold in single-use plastic bottles.6

Governments around the world are adopting legislation targeted at tackling plastic waste. By embracing the power of upstream innovation, companies can stay ahead of the curve.

Through the Global Commitment and Plastics Pact network, more than 1,000 organisations, including companies responsible for over 20% of all plastic packaging globally, have united behind the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s common vision for a circular economy for plastic. This vision has a strong upstream innovation component.

The full report can be found here

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