For many people, tape, labels and stickers can be a bit of an afterthought when it comes to packaging.
Not so for the companies we serve! We are often asked, “ Is this tape recyclable [or compostable, biodegradable]?” You can’t imagine the joy we feel when we realize just how committed and eco-geeko our community of sustainable businesses truly is.
Questions around tape (as well as labels and stickers) can be tricky, so here, we break down what you need to know.
For Tape, You Want To Shift the Question
You may be wondering, is this tape recyclable?
But we recommend thinking about it this way: Does the tape you are considering align well with the optimal end of life outcome for whatever it is taping up?
Most packaging tape is used on shipping boxes.
Since more than 70% of shipping boxes are recycled (the preferred environmental outcome for corrugated!), you would want to know: Does the tape you are considering align well with the corrugated recycling stream?
The good news is you can use any packaging tape on shipping boxes without making the boxes themselves unrecyclable.
This is because mills have gotten good at removing contaminants when pulping post consumer corrugate and paper.
Here’s a quick primer on what happens when you recycle a shipping box or mixed paper
- SORTING (Done at the MRF): Major contaminants are removed, such as food-stained paper or paper that is actually coated with plastic (such as a Tetrapak Orange Juice container). Sorted bales of mixed paper and corrugate are then sent to the mill / reclaimer.
- PULPING: Once at the mill, the post-consumer recycled paper is put in a large vat (basically a blender) that has chemicals and water. The paper is chopped up into tiny pieces and heated to turn it into a mush of cellulose.
- SCREENING: The mushy pulp is then screened. Basically the pulp is pushed through screens that have holes and slots of different shapes and sizes.
- CLEANING: After screening, the pulp is cleaned further to remove any contaminants by spinning the mushy mixture. Heavy objects like staples, paper clips, and plastic pins are thrown from the cylindrical cone shaped vats, while lighter particles gather in the center from where it is safely removed.
- DEINKING AND WASHING: Most paper then needs to be de-inked and removed of its residues and adhesives. The pulp is washed with water and chemicals to remove ink particles and is often then put through a flotation process. Pulp is put into a floatation vat in which ink and adhesives stick to surfactants (air and chemicals) which float to the surface. This is skimmed off.
- BLEACHING: Depending on how the paper will be used, at this stage the paper may be bleached.
- ROLLING: Now, the mush is ready to be rolled into paper. This mush was derived from the paper recovered by recycling facilities (from homes and businesses) and is therefore considered post-consumer. At this stage, mills may add virgin pulp or post-industrial pulp. Post-industrial pulp is paper or pulp recovered from their own manufacturing facilities. It is cleaner, free of ink and adhesives, than post-consumer waste is. Pulp is applied to wire screens where rollers remove the water the pulp is dried (in in drying, the pulp forms together into paper). The paper is then spun into giant rolls where it is ready to be used by converters and retailers.
The screening, cleaning and de-inking process removes the components of tape that can’t be recycled along with paper - non-paper facestock, adhesives, fiberglass reinforcement, ink, etc.
Does that mean all packaging tapes are equally sustainable?
No! We recommend looking for a shipping tape whose face stock matches your packaging material and whose adhesive separates as cleanly and easily as possible from your packaging substrate in the recycling process.
Sustainable Tape Reference Guide
Packaging Tape for Corrugated Shipping Boxes
For a shipping box whose likely end of life scenario is to be recycled, our recommended tapes include (the following list is in order of preference!):
- Non-reinforced Water Activated Tape: Non-reinforced WAT has a paper facestock, so the facestock itself actually gets recycled along with the corrugated of the shipping box. The starch-based adhesive easily dissolves and separates in the repulping process. The two downsides? (1) Water Activated Tape is difficult to use without a dispenser, and automated dispensers can be pricey. (2) Non-reinforced means that it isn’t strong enough for very heavy, large shipping boxes.
- Reinforced Water Activated Tape: This tape has many of the same ecological benefits as non-reinforced tape, with one major drawback. This tape is reinforced with fiberglass, which is an added (non-renewable) contaminant compared to the option above. This fiberglass is screened out during the recycling and remanufacturing process, and the screened out components are land filled.
- Kraft Flatback Tape: Kraft Flatback tape has a paper-based facestock. However, the adhesive does not separate from the facestock or the corrugated box as easily as Water Activated Tape during the repulping process. This means the facestock and the adhesive is likely separated during the remanufacturing process and then landfilled. Kraft Flatback Tape is extremely strong and can be used readily without a dispenser.
- Cello Tape: Cello tape has a cello-based facestock, a cellulose material likely made from trees. While Cello Tape on its own has some standout qualities - cello is renewable, biodegradable - it is not as sustainable an end of life choice as the three options listed above when actually used to tape up corrugated boxes. The facestock and adhesive are non-paper and would be screened out in the repulping process and then landfilled.
Again, none of the above choices is necessarily a bad one, and none will prevent a shipping box from being recycled, but for the eco-nerdiest among us, we want to know all of the details to make the right decision for the planet.
Hopefully this guidance helps you make the right decision for your packaging strategy.
Packaging Tape for Poly Mailers or Plastic Packaging
If you happen to be taping up a poly mailer, or something else made with plastic, we recommend using polypropylene tape. We don’t carry this as most companies do not need to apply tape to our 100% recycled poly mailers, but it is a standard offering at office and warehouse supply stores.
Packaging Tape for Items Whose Ideal End of Life is Composting
If you are taping something that you hope will ultimately be composted, such as a bio-based compostable mailer, we recommend using our renewable, biodegradable Cello Tape.
What To Do With Long Strands of Standalone Tape
When using tape, you often end up with a few long pieces in the process.
We recommend landfilling all loose tape except non-reinforced water activated tape. Non-reinforced WAT can be recycled with mixed paper.
Continued Improvement and Innovation
As with all packaging, there is plenty of opportunity to improve the sustainability of packaging tape options, including the ones offered by EcoEnclose.
When it comes to our carton sealing tape, we believe the most impactful step we can take is to add recycled (ideally post-consumer) content to paper face stock tape.
Second, we believe continued eco improvements can be made to pressure sensitive adhesives, making them as friendly to the recycling process as possible.
Looking for other changes or improvements to our line of packaging tape? Contact us with your suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org!