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Why Recycled Content Matters Now More Than Ever

Why Recycled Content Matters Now More Than Ever

Apr 4th 2022

Last week, we learned that paper supply for our 110lb 100% post-consumer waste cardstock (used for our business cards, hang tags and notecards) would be unavailable until May.

Our options were: (1) 110lb cardstock with FSC certified 30% recycled content mix; or (2) 100lb cardstock with 100% recycled content. We went with option #2.

Decisions like this are great opportunities to put our Sustainable Packaging Framework in action. The top tenet of our framework is to Prioritize Recycled Content in our packaging, with a focus on domestically produced, post-consumer waste. 

With this in mind, our decision was easy. Slightly thinner cardstock that is 100% recycled is far superior (ecologically speaking), particularly for a custom notecards, whose use is purely for marketing and messaging and therefore doesn’t require functional strength the way packaging does.

This prioritization of recycled content is true across our entire business. But it always helps to step back and remind ourselves and our EcoAlly community - why.

  • Why do we put so much emphasis on recycled content?
  • Is recycled content important even when something is curbside recyclable? (the answer - HELL YES)
  • Can’t we just use certified sustainable content instead? (the answer - NO, please please please find recycled content whenever possible!)

Here, we revisit these questions to help shed light on why recycled content is the number one thing to look for in your sustainable packaging. If something you use is not currently recycled, see if a recycled option is available. If not, work with us (or any other packaging partners) to see what can be done to bring recycled content into it.

#1 Recycled Has a Significantly Lower Carbon Footprint Than Virgin

Paper: Many well intentioned brands are moving from plastic to paper packaging. Paper is curbside recyclable and is naturally biodegradable (meaning that if the packaging does happen to become litter, it will not pose a major long-term threat to nature, wildlife and humans).

But we are becoming alarmed by the number of brands who are switching to paper without consideration of where that paper comes from. The collective shift away from plastic has radically increased demand for paper, which in turn has put unprecedented pressure on the world’s forests - forests that are some of the most critical remaining carbon sinks on our planet. This is very scary.

The Environmental Paper Calculator, a free, extremely easy to use LCA tool for paper (that, unlike other LCA software options out there, makes its assumptions extremely transparent and clear!) shows that for linerboard paper, transitioning from virgin to 100% recycled results in:

  • 52% less energy used
  • 74% less greenhouse gas emissions released
  • 33% less water used

The savings are significant! These numbers provide a clear imperative - it is essential for any earth-conscious brand utilizing paper-based packaging to look for recycled content!

Note that LCA systems, whose assumptions are driven more by industry interests than the scientific community, will produce different results. Trayak and Sphera (the most commonly used LCA software options in the packaging space) actually deem virgin paper to be more carbon efficient than recycled paper.

This is because these (industry-funded) systems assume that the cutting down of trees is carbon neutral. This point of view has been unequivocally negated by the scientific community, which agrees that we cannot make the assumption that trees will sequester carbon at the same rate that a chopped down tree releases it. This article does a great job describing this in more detail. Because of these biased assumptions, EcoEnclose no longer uses Trayak or Sphera to assess the impact of paper-based packaging.

Plastic: The same trends hold true in plastic. Thus far, EcoEnclose continues to use Trayak and Sphera to assess the carbon footprint of plastic (we have not come across the same concerns related to underlying assumptions with respect to plastic that we have found with paper). A Trayak analysis of recycled LDPE, compared to virgin LDPE and composted PLA film shows that recycled LDPE has a 47% lower footprint than virgin plastic and a 54% lower footprint than bioplastic. Learn more about Plastic LCA comparisons here.

These trends apply to other materials as well. Recycled aluminum can be produced using less than 5% of the energy required to produce the same weight of virgin aluminum. Recycled glass requires 10-15% less energy to produce than virgin glass.

We Need to Source Paper in a Way That Protects Our Ancient and Endangered Forests

As more and more brands switch from plastic to paper, we occasionally find ourselves talking to a brand that says they are prioritizing FSC Certification over recycled content.

This immediately raises flags for us.

Virgin paper is always significantly more resource intensive to produce than recycled alternatives - even if the paper comes from FSC certified trees. Additionally, FSC Certification does not fully protect against logging in ancient and endangered forests, and cutting down any tree in primary forests (even if that tree is FSC Certified).

When it comes to paper, the most important step a brand can take is to ensure no primary forests are impacted.

Logging in pristine primary forests, represents a concern with respect to both climate and biodiversity. Unlike secondary forests or fast-rotation pine or eucalyptus plantations, harvesting in old-growth forests releases CO2 that has taken centuries to accumulate — carbon that, once lost, is irrecoverable in our lifetime. [Source].

The best way to ensure your paper isn’t drawing from primary forests is to use 100% recycled content. Luckily, when it comes to ecommerce packaging, recycled content works great! We have not seen applications that truly require the functional benefits of virgin paper.

If recycled content (and the next best options - next gen agricultural waste and/or carbon fixing crops as paper inputs) are truly infeasible for your needs, and you have to use virgin paper made from trees, then you’ll want to vet the origins of that paper. If you are sourcing virgin paper, identify the origins of the tree that are going into your paper, and use Canopy Paper’s Forest Mapper to ensure the forest of origin does not overlap with an ancient or endangered forest.

It is important to note that paper can be FSC or SFI certified and still draw from primary forests. That said, if and when virgin paper is needed, the FSC certification is extremely valuable as it helps ensure the trees being used for your paper are being grown and harvested in a way that reduces their environmental impact.

Sourcing Recycled Post-Consumer Waste Is Critical to Building a Robust Recycling Supply Chain

We speak with many brands that talk about how important it is that their goods and packaging are curbside recyclable, but who don’t necessarily prioritize recycled content at that same level. This is understandable, as curbside recyclability speaks so closely to their customers’ experience.

However, this is an important disconnect to address - we can’t ask people to recycle without also asking them to buy recycled. This is because recycling only works if our recycled materials can actually become a usable product in its next life!

We (as brands and consumers) play a critical role in this process. By demanding that our goods be made with recycled content - and post-consumer waste in particular - we help spur investments in:

  • Increased recycled content from households and businesses: We want to incentivize as many people as possible to recycle their goods! If the demand for recycled materials is high, MRFs will make money on those materials. This gives them a reason to work with the households and companies they serve to maximize the volume of clean, usable waste they receive. The fact that bales of aluminum cans generate high revenue levels for MRFs is one of the reasons that recycling rates on cans is so much higher than it is for plastic bottles.
  • Increased capacity: If demand for recycled content is high, MRFs, reclaimers and remanufacturers will invest in more equipment, allowing them to take in and process more and more recycled content.
  • Improved technology and innovation: When we demand recycled content, remanufacturers are given a reason to innovate. Ten years ago, no one could use post-consumer waste in thin film. Today, we make our poly mailers with 50% post-consumer waste. Ten years ago, it was impossible to turn a clear plastic bag into another clear plastic bag. Today it is possible.

Anyone interested in building a robust, circular economy (and interesting in being able to recycle their packaging and goods) should make buying recycled core to their sustainability ethos. 

Additional Resources

Shop Recycled Packaging

Why Post-Consumer Waste is the Most Important Question to Ask About Your Packaging

How to Source Recycled Content

Life Cycle Analysis and Sustainable Packaging