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Circulair Packaging

Marieke Havermans wants Brightlands Materials Center to become the catalyst of circular packaging.

Marieke Havermans: "We want to become the acknowledged expert on sealing of circular packaging" cover

Working at TNO or Brightlands Materials Center was not something Marieke Havermans envisioned herself doing. And yet the drive to make a difference won out over her reluctance. Since the summer of 2022, she has been leading Brightlands Material Center’s Circular Packaging Program.

From an early age, Marieke Havermans has had a fascination for packaging. She grew up “in a very eco-friendly family” (her own words) and learned early on that you have to take care of the planet. “My father was particularly annoyed by packaging, one of the biggest culprits of the growing mountain of waste,” she says. She was eager to contribute ideas on that topic. And luckily, she turned out to be technical enough to do so. “In the garage, I had my own craft room to weld, solder, carpenter and sand. That way I could refurbish old electrical appliances. At age four, I soldered my first circuit board.”

From environmentally unfriendly coffins…

Industrial designer Marieke Havermans previously worked at Heinz where she developed innovative and sustainable packaging. “Call it professional deformation, but I’m interested in how stuff is made,” she said. After the death of a family member, she became triggered by the selection of coffins from which family members were able to choose. Apart from the style, which she found dark and impersonal, she was particularly bothered by the material from which the coffins were made. Eighty percent of the “wooden” coffins are in fact made of chipboard or MDF and assembled with toxic glue and iron screws. This could be designed more sustainable, as well as more beautiful and personal, she decided.

… to sustainable coffins

With this in mind, Havermans launched a new initiative. With her background in Industrial Product Design and several years of experience in the packaging industry, she came up with the idea of developing a truly sustainable and stylish coffin, available to everyone. At the time, Onora was a fresh face in the funeral industry. A company with a new view at a traditional market: increasing the supply in this industry by bringing out truly sustainable coffins that are simply beautiful and have a fair price. Onora went through ups and downs, and eventually Marieke decided to quit her business.

No more fighting on your own

When a headhunter approached Marieke for a job at TNO, she was initially skeptical. I would not fit in at all, she thought. Still, she became curious. “It even made me a little emotional! With such a great company behind you, you can achieve more than when you have to struggle on your own, so I was going to give it a try. I do feel like the odd one out, but I am starting to feel right at home here,” Havermans says.

Marieke Havermans is part of the Circular Packaging Program at Brightlands Materials Center. This program is working hard on everything that has to do with packaging that is ready for the circular economy of the future. In practice, this means that Marieke deals with issues such as: How do we make packaging suitable for recycling and how do we apply the recyclate in new packaging which is then still (food) safe and functional. Very relevant issues that the whole world is currently working on.

Making a difference

And exactly there lies the challenge for Marieke: where can she and her team really make a difference? “It starts with the EU’s packaging agenda. It states, for example, that by 2025 30% of packaging must consist of recyclate and 100% of its material must be recyclable. By 2050 that will go a big step further, by then all packaging must be 100% circular. We want to contribute to this transition. And that is extremely important when you consider that 40% of plastic consumption in the EU can be attributed to packaging.”

Seven layers of soup packaging

“Attached to the packaging agenda are design guidelines and packaging taxes. So, you can imagine that design for recycling is a hot topic. But what is perhaps even more important is design from recycling, especially keeping the 2050 goals in mind. Right now, a soup container, for example, consists of seven layers. And each layer consists of a different type of material, from aluminum to PE. We must get rid of that, we have to, for example, start making it out of mono-material. Only then can packaging possibly be recycled at value in the chain and will a food packaging eventually be turned into a new food packaging again. That is the field we are in.”

More than enough opportunities

Havermans wants Brightlands Materials Center to become the catalyst of circular packaging. How? She has plenty of ideas for that: “There are numerous issues and parties that affect the realization of circular packaging, including legislation, raw materials, product and food safety, use of packaging, waste, recycling and logistics. Working towards a circular economy therefore requires cooperation on a national and international level, and this is exactly where Brightlands Materials Center excels. As an independent project organization with an extensive network, we are able to bring partners together and set up joint projects for circular packaging design in closed loop applications. Our ambition is to turn packaging into new packaging again, thus contributing to the reduction of waste and the more efficient use of raw materials.”

Center of expertise

Brightlands Materials Center is also currently building an expertise center for sealing circular packaging made from new materials, such as mono-material constructions, biobased materials and recyclates. Marieke: “We find that sealing these new materials is difficult on a laboratory scale because, for example, they are not suitable for sealing, do not have an extra seal layer, or the quality is not consistent. To create leak-free packaging on production lines, effective sealing and understanding sealing technology is thus very important. To increase this knowledge, our expert team is working on a predictive AI model and expanding our testing and lab facilities.” With the expertise center and network of partners, Marieke is confident that the challenges of circular sealing can be overcome. “We remain committed to accelerating the transition to a circular economy and reducing the impact of packaging on the environment.”

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