The Most Important Question to Ask when Seeking Sustainable Packaging

The Most Important Question to Ask when Seeking Sustainable Packaging

Posted on Apr 20th 2021

How Much Post Consumer Waste Does It Have?

To us, the number one question to help you evaluate a packaging option should be around post-consumer waste. 

What does post-consumer waste mean? Post consumer waste refers to recycled content that is generated from items (often packaging) that has already been used. 

Alternatively, post industrial waste refers to waste scraps that are generated from a manufacturing line. While all recycled content is ecologically preferred over virgin material, post-consumer waste should be prioritized over post industrial waste.

Asking "how much post consumer waste?" is very different from asking "how much recycled content?" When you see that an item is made with 50% recycled content, that number includes both post-industrial and post-consumer waste. Often, when post-consumer waste rates aren't specified, it may mean that most of the recycled content is actually post-industrial.

Why is Post Consumer Waste So Critical?

EcoEnclose, as well as many sustainable packaging experts, is building towards a future of packaging in which materials are endlessly circular. 

Packaging Cycles Table

In this future, consumers would use packaging (and perhaps reuse the packaging a few times) and then recycle it. The recycler sells their bales to reclaimers who then melt or pulp the items down, remanufacture materials and sell them to converted who then produce recycled packaging for brands. Our vision is that packaging cycles through this loop many times, with very little getting kicked out into the landfill and a minimal need for virgin inputs. 

This future is far away today, but by asking the question "how much post consumer waste" you are doing your part to help build towards this vision. 

Your demand for post-consumer waste triggers demand, investment and innovation across the recycling supply chain. This will make it easier for manufacturers to work with post-consumer waste, enabling them to pay more for these recycled inputs, encouraging recyclers to get more of these good from consumers, which leads to an increase in our overall recycling rates. 

Your seemingly simple act of insisting on high levels of post-consumer waste is a key step in this chain of events.

I'm Sold! Bit Why Isn't Everything Made With High Levels of Post Consumer Waste?

Post consumer waste is more difficult to work with than virgin materials and even post-industrial waste.

The first reason for this is that post consumer waste introduces contaminants. For example, recycled paper will go through several cleaning steps during the repulping process. In one step, things like staples, paper clips and tape are filtered out. In another step, the paper is deinked. While these technologies have advanced significantly, they are not perfect and the final material contains some contaminants. 

Additionally, with some items, the raw material degrades in quality each time it is recycled. With each cycle of paper recycling, the paper fibers actually become shorter and weaker.

Because of this, achieving high levels of post-consumer waste often requires investment, testing and development, and a brand commitment to sustainability (over other things such as manufacturing ease, convenience and rock bottom pricing). 

We at EcoEnclose are fully committed to sustainable packaging, but we do not yet offer an abundance of packaging made with 100% post-consumer waste. In our paper lines, post-consumer waste rates are typically 90% to 97% and our 100% recycled poly mailers are made with 50% post-consumer waste. We are constantly balancing technical feasibility, durability and functionality, and our desire to maximize post-consumer waste. 

Rest assured that across all of our product lines, we are committed to working towards 100% post-consumer waste long-term, without sacrificing your functional requirements.

How Can You Find Out the Post Consumer Waste Levels of Packaging?

If you're considering EcoEnclose packaging, our recycled content and post-consumer waste rate are listed on individual product pages and in our  Bill of Materials

With other packaging options, you may find this information listed on websites or specification sheets. In some cases, you may need to ask the supplier directly and specifically - "What percent of this item is made with post-consumer waste?" If you are executing an RFI process to find and select your packaging, we recommend you including questions around post-consumer waste in your RFI itself.  

Does the origin of the recycled content matter?

Yes! We encourage you to source your post-consumer waste domestically. 

Since China’s National Sword policy went into effect, it has become painfully clear that a circular economy can only be created if we invest in US-based end-to-end recycling and reclaiming infrastructure.

While sourcing recycled supplies and packaging manufactured in Asia is certainly better than sourcing virgin materials, this step does not have the desired impact of spurring circular investments where we need it the most - here in the US (or in your home country).

What About Recyclability? Isn't That More Important Than Post Consumer Waste?

Maybe you were expecting the most important question to be: "Is it Recyclable?" 

Recyclability is a baseline. We strongly believe it is the starting point of a conversation around sustainable packaging - not the end game and not even a eco differentiator.

When we see packaging labeled as "sustainable" and then learn that its only selling point is that it is "recyclable," we grow skeptical.

If you are looking for packaging that is a true step up in terms of sustainability, recycled content and post-consumer waste in particular, is the starting point. 

Are There Other Companies Adopting This As Their Sustainable Packaging Strategy?

Yes! By pursuing high post-consumer waste levels, you are in good company.

Nike has invested in post-consumer waste in everything to its footwear itself and its packaging. Method has invested in post-consumer and even ocean plastic in its packaging

Ritual, a company offering an innovative daily vitamin, has not only adopted an ecommerce packaging strategy with high levels of recycled content and post-consumer waste, it has worked with a plastic bottle manufacturer to develop the first ever  100% post-consumer waste PET bottle for its industry.