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Why Recycled Content Matters

If you've read EcoEnclose's Framework for Sustainable Packaging, you probably already know that we are maniacal about Recycled Content, and consider it one of our main tenants when developing our product line. People often ask us why this is so important to us. We created this snazzy infographic to help illustrate the two main reasons:

  1. Goods made with recycled content use less energy, water, and create less pollution than virgin counterparts. This is true for every type of material (plastic, paper, glass, aluminum, etc) and this analysis accounts for the energy required to pick up, sort and distribute the recycled goods to manufacturers.
  2. Most of us recognize RECYCLING as a key way to protect the planet. When you recycle something (after trying to reuse it of course), you enable those raw materials to be utilized again and keep goods out of the landfill. But not everyone recognizes that the act of buying goods made with recycled content is actually what makes it possible for us (and the businesses that serve us) to recycle.

Read on for an illustration of what we mean.

Recycled Packaging

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Why are we so maniacal about recycled content?

For two reasons.

First, items made with recycled content use less energy and resources than those made with virgin content. This is true for paper and plastic. According to Katherine Guerin, executive director of the Maine Resource Recovery Association, for every 1 ton of scrap paper we recycle, we save: 17 trees, 4200 kilowatt hours of electricity, 7000 gallons of water, and 3 cubic yards of landfill space. In addition, 60 pounds of effluents are not emitted into the air. According to the U.S. EPA, the generation of clean recycled plastic resin required 71 trillion Btu less than the amount of energy that would be required to produce the equivalent tonnage of virgin PET and HDPE resin. The amount of energy saved by recycling PET and HDPE containers, including bottles, in 2008 was the equivalent to the annual energy use of 750,000 U.S. homes. The corresponding savings in greenhouse gas emissions was 2.1 million tons of CO 2 equivalents, an amount comparable to taking 360,000 cars off the road. All of these calculations include the energy required to receive, sort and transport waste back into the raw materials stream.

The second reason we have prioritized goods made with recycled materials, and specifically those with as much post-consumer waste as possible, is to be a market force for recycled material.

Post industrial content refers to scraps created in a manufacturing facility. Post industrial waste is fairly clean and pure, and therefore relatively easy to work with and find markets for. Post-consumer content, on the other hand, refers to the recycling of items that have already been used. Recycled waste generated by your household (collecting through blue bins), through companies, through restaurants, etc are all examples of post-consumer recycled waste.    

A MRF, or “murf,” is a materials recovery facility. This is where curbside recyclable material is received and then sorted by a combination of awe-inspiring machines and even more awe-inspiring people. At the end of the MRF line, items are consolidated by commodity type (aluminum, corrugated, paper, plastic PET bottles, etc). MRF’s “traders” then look for the price they can get for each commodity type on a given day. In some cases, this means shipping pallets of aluminum or corrugated to a neighboring state, and in other cases it means sending commodities all the way to China. Recycling therefore only works if these “recycling traders” can make money, which only happens if there are eager buyers for these goods.

At the same time, it is important to understand that for some materials (such as paper), recycled content (especially post-consumer content) is inherently “weaker” than virgin material. With our current technologies, each next stage in a material's life (i.e. after a new round of recycling) leads to fibers that are shorter and thinner. Because of this, recycled material isn’t feasible today for all possible use cases. However, the impact of these shorter fibers are negligible when it comes to almost all ecommerce packaging scenarios.

Because ecommerce packaging is uniquely suited to utilize recycled content, we see an important role for EcoEnclose to play in strengthening the demand for recycled inputs. This would make the economics of recycling more appealing to waste management companies and incentivizes manufacturers to go above and beyond to find ways to use post-consumer waste in their manufacturing.

By focusing on recycled (particularly post-consumer recycled) and recyclable packaging, we stay true to our overall commitment to “cradle-to-cradle” thinking and to making thoughtful decisions based on the entire lifecycle of a material.

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Why Buying Recycled Content Matters