What’s in a Package?

What’s in a package? If you are like many of the leading brands and consumer packaged goods companies thinking about packaging sustainability, there’s probably some recycled content in your package. And, if your packaging is fiber-based, figuring out how to optimize recycled content might just get a little easier with the release of GreenBlue’s Sustainable Packaging Coalition’s Guidelines for the Use of Recycled Content in Fiber Packaging.

The Guidelines draw heavily upon the expertise of some of the largest based packaging converters and paper mill operators including Amcor, Caraustar Industries Inc., Graphic Packaging International, International Paper, Pratt Industries, RockTenn Company, and Sunoco Products Company to provide science-based, practical information on using both pre and post-consumer recycled content in packaging. With a focused look at 20 high volume packaging applications in retail environments, my expert team and I looked at when, where, and how to optimize recycled content and why some packaging applications lend themselves to the use of high percentages of recycled content, while others do not. Here are some of the things I learned while developing these Guidelines:

Six Key Criteria
When contemplating the use of recycled content, there are six key criteria to consider 1) packaging performance requirements, 2) regulatory compliance, 3) technical/operational factors, 4) aesthetic considerations, 5) material availability, and 6) cost. Packaging design and engineering teams must first understand how the package needs to perform in the marketplace to fulfill job #1─product protection. Some good questions to ask their technical counterparts might be, How does recycling affect fiber and/or change its characteristics or attributes?

Strength, Strength, Strength
As I just suggested, it is really all about performance and one of the my big take aways from this effort is that strength—defined as compression strength, edge crush strength, burst strength, tensile strength, score bend strength, and drop impact strength—is absolutely critical in fiber packaging. Since the repulping process causes the fibers to shorten, which can then cause their cell walls to collapse during the drying process, recycled fibers tend to be weaker than virgin fiber. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t make a high performing packaging using significant percentages of recycled content; it simply means that for many applications, mixing recycled content with some percentage of virgin fiber will yield the best results.

It’s more challenging to use recycled content in direct food/beverage or drug contact packaging due to the need to comply with Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations. But, keep in mind that the same regulations—specifically FDA 21CFR170 to 21CFR180— apply to food and drug packaging produced with virgin content. The one difference is that Section 176.260 states that pulp from reclaimed fiber may be used in food contact articles if the recycled content “does not contain deleterious substances that may migrate to food so as to be potentially injurious to the health of the consumers.” Being able to demonstrate, through appropriate testing, that the reclaimed fiber is not introducing any materials of concern is key.

Mill Technology
Mill technology is one of the primary factors in efficient and effective use of recycle fiber in packaging. The good news is that a number of technological advances in multi-ply recycled paperboard manufacturing have made better and faster sheet formation possible. Most of these involve a different means of applying pulp to the rotating cylinders of a conventional multiply machine. Improvements in press section and coating technology are also common. Distributed control systems (DCSs—i.e., that eliminate manual control of paperboard production) have also improved the ability to produce recycled content board. DCSs comprise an array of scanners, measurements, profilers, control software, and high-speed communication interfaces with operators to deliver both optimum sheet characteristics and maximum production. These systems can also help monitor overall energy consumption

Contamination in the recycle stream is another operational challenge. Unfortunately, with a trend toward single stream recycling, contamination may become a bigger factor in the short term. On the other hand, technological improvements in cleaning equipment that is being employed at an increasing number of mills could compensate for the increased contamination in the long term. In many cases, these improvements result from advances in alloys and other materials, which have led to the development of more sophisticated screening equipment. A 12,000-slot screen used to be required for fine screening. Today, a 6,000-slot screen provides optimum performance.

White and Bright
While many may say aesthetics should not be a barrier to recycled content use, consider the following scenario. You need an over the counter pain reliever. On one end of the shelf several offerings are packed in bright white (bleached) boxes. On the other end of the shelf a few options are packed in dull, uneven-toned brown or beige boxes. Because of the nature of the product, chances are you reach for the “clean” looking box. Consumer education may eventually eliminate selection based on perception, but we’re not there yet, and most brands won’t (really can’t) take the risk of losing market share. Nonetheless, until consumers really get on board with more eco-friendly choices, packaging converters have a number of options to achieve a whiter brighter packaging even when using significant percentages of recycled content. For example, keeping newsprint (which shouldn’t be used in food and drug contact packaging anyway) out of the furnish helps with coloration. Using multi-stage cleansing processes that utilize elemental chlorine-free and chlorine-free bleaching agents, such as hydrogen peroxide and other biodegradable cleaners, organic chelants, and/or optical brightening agents, can help achieve desired results. Another solution is the use of white pigmented coatings that have been specifically formulated for whiteness and brightness, for example, coatings with titanium dioxide.

Supply and Demand
Even though fiber is the most recycled packaging material—71.8 percent of paper and paperboard packaging was recycled in 2009, according to US EPA data—demand exceeds supply. This is partly true because offshore markets are willing to pay higher prices for recycled fiber. As an indication of current trends, the AF&PA reports that the US exported 3 percent more recovered paper in April than in March 2011 and by August 2011, year-to-date exports of recovered paper were up 13 percent.

Finally, if you think cost is the biggest consideration for brand owners and converters in deciding if and how much recycled content to use in their fiber-based packaging, think again. It’s not. As is true of virgin fiber, cost of recycled paper and paperboard fluctuates, so at any given time recycled paperboard may cost less than virgin or vice versa. It’s all about watching the market and making smart purchasing decisions.

Guidelines for the Use of Recycled Content in Fiber Packaging is available free to Sustainable Packaging Coalition members and to non-members for $125.00.
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