Why Recycled Content Matters
Why Recycled Content Matters
The Road to Sustainable Packaging
There are three simple steps to make your packaging as sustainable and circular as possible.
Maximize Recycled Content
Design for Recyclability
Most people are familiar with the first and the last. The phrase “reduce, reuse, recycle” is well-known for a reason.
But many brands overlook the second, which we believe is the most impactful step you can take in maximizing how eco-friendly your packaging is. This step is true for all materials - paper, plastic, glass, aluminum, etc.
Unfortunately, we’ve seen some of the largest companies in the world - like Amazon - focus solely on weight reduction and curbside recyclability to green their public image while ignoring the fact that their packaging is made with largely virgin inputs.
Why Is Recycled Content So Important?
In some ways, it is common sense! Making packaging out of packaging or any other waste stream is better for the planet than harvesting raw materials to make something new, especially something that will only be used once.
But, there is also clear data and science behind this as well. There are three core reasons.
Recycled Content Saves Our Planet’s Precious Natural Resources
No virgin materials are available on any commercially viable scale whose raw inputs don’t damage our environment, biodiversity, and communities. Recognizing this, it becomes evident that producing goods, including packaging, out of waste rather than virgin raw materials is a much better option for our planet. We should work as hard as possible, ensuring that, once extracted or harvested, the raw materials used to produce virgin products are used via recycling as often as possible.
is made from bauxite, whose mining causes significant environmental damage - deforestation, water pollution, air pollution, etc.
is made from fossil fuels, whose extraction is well recognized as the leading cause of climate change. Virgin bioplastic is made from various sources - corn, potatoes, sugarcane, and trees - whose production and harvesting lead to deforestation, biodiversity loss, chemical runoff, and ocean acidification.
is made from silica sand (also known as white sand or quartz sand), soda ash, and limestone - raw materials whose mining also causes immense environmental destruction. It’s hard to believe, but the world is running out of sand, which has made sand mining almost as valuable as gold mining in countries such as India. The shortage of sand has resulted in the emergence of India’s sand mafia, organized illegal trade in India responsible for the murder of hundreds of journalists and activists.
is largely made from trees. Many people incorrectly believe trees are a purely renewable and sustainable material source. However, logging for paper contributes heavily to the destruction of our world’s primary and secondary forests. These forests are essential to mitigating climate change, protecting lands from floods, managing fresh water supply, and rain cycles, protecting species, and subverting biodiversity loss.
Recycled Content is More Energy, Carbon, and Resource Efficient
This statement is true for every single material - not just paper!
The Environmental Paper Calculator is a free, extremely easy-to-use LCA tool for paper. Unlike other LCA software options, its assumptions are extremely transparent and clear. It also shows that transitioning from virgin to 100% recycled linerboard paper results in
- 52% less energy used
- 74% less greenhouse gas emissions released
- 33% less water used
A Note On Life-Cycle Assessment Systems
Life-cycle assessments systems, or LCAs, whose assumptions are driven more by industry interests than the scientific community, will produce different results. Trayak and Sphera are the most commonly used LCA software options in the packaging space. They deem virgin paper more carbon efficient than recycled paper because these industry-funded systems assume that cutting down trees is carbon neutral.
The scientific community unequivocally negates this point of view, which agrees that we cannot assume that trees will sequester carbon at the same rate that a chopped-down tree releases it. This article does a great job of 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.
These trends apply to other materials as well. Recycled aluminum is 94% less carbon-intensive than making primary aluminum. Recycled glass uses 20-30% less energy than virgin glass.
Brands focused on reducing their corporate carbon footprint should use recycled input materials. These materials are the easiest way to drastically reduce the carbon footprint of products in scopes 1 and 3 - the products made and sold and the packaging used to market and protect them.
Using Recycled Content Supports Our Collective Ability To Recycle
Using recycled content is the essential step in a successful recycling system. Not only does it support our collective ability to recycle goods, it helps improve recycling systems long-term towards the end vision of true materials circularity.
Many consumers, households, and brands recognize the importance of recycling and ensuring that their packaging is recyclable. Still, they do not prioritize recycled content in the goods they consume. This disconnect is significant.
We cannot ask people to recycle by asking them to buy recycled materials because recycling only works if all the waste we recycle can become a usable product in its next life. We, as brands and consumers, are essential to making this happen.
To understand why this is true, let’s take a quick detour and discuss the recycling process.
Recycled waste generated by households, companies, restaurants, etc and collected through blue bins are examples of post-consumer recycled waste. These are picked up by local waste haulers and delivered to an MRF (pronounced “murf”) - a materials recovery facility.
The material is 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 (material) type (aluminum, corrugated, mixed paper, plastic bottles, glass, etc.).
MRF “traders” look to sell these bales to reclaimers who can remanufacture the “waste” into new usable goods. Traders are looking to maximize the per-pound price for each commodity 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 overseas.
Recycling, therefore, only works if these “recycling traders” can make money, which only happens if there are eager reclaimers and buyers for these goods. Reclaimers are only willing to buy recycled material if they have buyers (converters, brands, etc.) to sell their finished products.
Because of this, brand investment in recycled content helps:
Maximized Quantities of Recycled Material
If the demand for recycled materials is high, MRFs will make money on those materials. This value gives them a reason to work with those they serve to maximize the volume of clean, usable waste they receive. The fact that bales of aluminum cans generates high revenue for MRFs is one of the reasons that can recycling rates are so much higher than it is for plastic bottles.
Increases in Manufacturing Capacity
If demand for recycled content is high, MRFs, reclaimers, and remanufacturers will invest in more equipment designed to process recycled content inputs, thus allowing them to take in and process more recycled content.
Improvements in Technology and Innovation
For many materials, the current recycling process downgrades the material. For example, recycled paper's fibers are shortened, making the resulting material somewhat weaker. Because of this, we’ve found that when brands collectively commit to recycled content, technology and innovation are improved across the entire recycling supply chain.
When we demand recycled content, MRFs and remanufacturers are given a reason to innovate - it keeps them profitable.
Ten years ago, no one could use post-consumer waste in thin film. Today, we make our poly mailers with 50% PCW.
Ten years ago, it was impossible to turn a clear plastic bag into another clear plastic bag. Today, it is possible and more common.
Ten years ago, recyclers could only recycle paper 3-5 times. Today, it is closer to 5-7 times.