Creating more sustainable packaging requires a multifaceted strategy to address an array of environmental considerations across the packaging life cycle. A key element of any sustainable packaging strategy is to ensure materials are effectively recovered at the end of their useful life to provide new inputs for industrial or biological cycles.
Recycling is the most prevalent recovery pathway for packaging, and in order to ensure that packaging is effectively recycled, the packaging community must engage on two critical fronts: designing packaging in such a way that it flows optimally through the recycling system, and supporting end markets for the recycled content created by that system.
In designing for recyclability, a package should be designed to flow smoothly through the entire recycling system. This means:
- It is accepted in the recycling collection receptacles available to end users.
- Waste haulers will collect and transport it.
- A material recovery facility (MRF) will sort it properly, if it is collected in a commingled mix of materials.
- Reprocessors will turn it into valuable feedstocks used in the manufacture of new materials.
- End markets will purchase and use those new materials.
Designing recyclable packaging is critical to creating a supply of recycled materials.
However, for the recycling system to be robust and healthy, the practice of designing for recyclability must be accompanied by a practice of providing market demand for recycled content. Packaging producers play a key role in providing market demand by using recycled content in new packaging, “pulling” the recycling system in such a way that matches the “push” of designing for recyclability. Packaging isn’t the only end market for recycled content — recycled content can be used in the manufacture of new durable goods, nondurable goods, and materials for the built environment. While these open loop applications are critical, the demand created when new packaging is made with recycled content from old packaging is major component of the overall landscape of demand for recycled content and it directly applies the concept of circularity to packaging. This “take what you make” attitude helps transform the dialog from recycling as an end in itself, to seeing recycling as a source of feedstock for new resources to be reused and given new lives.
Once packaging is collected, sorted, and reprocessed, circularity is only complete upon the use of that recycled material in the manufacture of a new product or packaging. To that end, this Guide seeks to encourage companies to use more recycled content in their packaging.
Scope of this Guide
The Sustainable Packaging Coalition developed this Guide to provide information on the key considerations around recycled content and how to design packaging that incorporates recycled content in order to drive demand for recycled materials. The Guide shares insights from experienced users of recycled content across the packaging supply chain to illuminate the opportunities and best practices for using recycled content in packaging. Although non-packaging end markets also play an important role in the circular economy, they are not the focus of this Guide.
To develop the Guide, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition conducted interviews during 2018 with companies across the packaging supply chain, including material manufacturers, packaging converters, brand owners, and retailers. The interviews explored barriers and opportunities to increasing the use of recycled content in packaging. Information collected through these interviews was supported by cumulative knowledge, research, and experiences of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition staff.
The geographic context of the Guide is primarily the U.S. and Canada, although many elements of the guidance are applicable in other regions.
This is a living guide and will be updated regularly. While individual sections can be downloaded, the Guide will be available primarily in a web based format.
The broad term “recycled content” can include both post-industrial recycled content and post-consumer recycled content. This Guide focuses primarily on the use of post-consumer recycled content. However, many of the takeaways are also relevant for post-industrial recycled content.
There is a plethora of terms and acronyms used to describe recycled content, including PCR (post-consumer resin or post-consumer recycled content), PIR (post-industrial recycled content), PCW (post-consumer waste), rPET (recycled PET), rHDPE (recycled HDPE), and others.
ISO 14021 defines pre- and post-consumer recycled materials as follows:
Pre-consumer material: Material diverted from the waste stream during a manufacturing process. Excluded is reutilization of materials such as rework, regrind or scrap generated in a process and capable of being reclaimed within the same process that generated it. This can also be referred to as post-industrial recycled content or PIR.
Post-consumer material: Material generated by households or by commercial, industrial and institutional facilities in their role as end-users of the product, which can no longer be used for its intended purpose. This includes returns of material from the distribution chain. This can also be referred to as post-consumer recycled content.
This Guide uses the phrase “recycled content” to refer to both post-consumer and post-industrial recycled content. However, it should be emphasized that both the challenges and opportunities surrounding recycled content tend to be more pronounced with post-consumer recycled content, and the Guide is aimed primarily at providing advice on the use of post-consumer recycled content. In instances specific to either post-consumer or post-industrial recycled content, efforts have been made to specify the type of recycled content discussed.
Why use recycled content?
There are number of reasons why using recycled content is beneficial to packaging manufacturers, brand owners, the economy and the environment, including:
- Making strides toward a circular economy. Using recycled content in packaging allows brand owners and manufacturers to close the loop, embodying the circular economy principle of a system that is regenerative and restorative.
- Lowering greenhouse gas emissions. Glass, aluminum, steel, and plastic production processes typically incur lower greenhouse gas emissions when recycled feedstocks are used instead of virgin feedstocks, owing to the fact that the recycling systems that produce those recycled feedstocks are less carbon-intensive than conventional raw material extraction processes and/or the manufacturing processes are less carbon-intensive when recycled feedstocks are used. For paper, the chief greenhouse gas emission benefit owes to the diversion of paper from landfills and avoidance of the methane emissions from the biodegradation of paper in landfills.
- Protecting and enhancing the recyclability of packaging. The recycling system involves a marketplace and, like any market, demand from end users is necessary to ensure viability. If recycled material is not purchased and used in an end market, then the system cannot continue to exist. Specifying recycled content can help ensure that end markets exist and help ensure that the system of recycling is robust enough to support marketing claims of recyclability for packaging.
- Meeting expectations from brand owners and retailers. Large retailers are calling for the use of recycled content and implementation of recycled content goals by brand owners, who are asking the same of their suppliers.
- Mitigating reputational risk. Using recycled content is a meaningful way to demonstrate voluntary responsibility around responsible supply chain practices, sending signals of leadership and reducing the risk of reputational damage from environmental campaigns.
- Building brand equity and consumer trust. Environmentally aware consumers support companies who implement responsible business practices, and the use of recycled content in packaging creates an opportunity to appeal to them. In addition to brands that specifically target this market segment, mainstream brands also stand to benefit since this market segment is growing – especially among millennials and other younger consumers.
- Taking action against packaging pollution. Litter on land and in waterways is a worldwide environmental issue affecting human health, the wellbeing of land and marine animals, and economic livelihoods including tourism and fishing. When materials are valued at their end-of-life through strong end markets for recycled content, they may be more likely to be collected and recovered and less likely to end up as terrestrial or marine pollution.
- Getting ahead of potential regulation. Companies can preempt and prepare for potential future regulations stipulating mandatory use of recycled content.
There are trade-offs with every decision, and the use of recycled content may not always guarantee improved environmental benefits or tangible business advantages. It is important to evaluate the life cycle costs and advantages of every decision to determine the most effective course of action. Nonetheless, recycled content is an important tool for any company to make their packaging portfolio more sustainable and its importance is expected to increase over time.
Key Recommendations for Brand Owners
- Set recycled content goals. Brand owners that set goals to include recycled content in their packaging are more likely to succeed in achieving high levels of recycled content usage. Conversely, companies are much less likely to use recycled content when they do not have corporate goals surrounding it. The best goals are publicly disclosed, which ensures transparent accountability; are ambitious, demonstrating a pronounced improvement over current practices; and include a system by which progress is periodically reported. If a brand is not prepared to set an ambitious, publicly-stated goal, brands should form achievable internal goals to match levels successfully adopted by peer companies and attach incentives around attaining those goals. Strong goals are also integrated into corporate business strategy so that decisions on using recycled content are made at the highest level of leadership, conveying to the rest of the business that environmental practices are just as important as financially-driven practices.
“The best way to get buy-in is through objective-setting, so that it doesn’t have to be [about] individuals or separate teams. Once we set objectives, we deliver on those results.”
– Brand Owner
- Align leadership, procurement, sales and marketing teams around recycled content. Brand owners are most likely to be successful using recycled content when leadership is supportive and marketing, procurement and all other teams are aligned around this objective. The procurement team needs to be educated on technical and performance considerations of recycled content and how that relates to performance requirements related to their products, so that they are equipped with the right tools and messages when working with suppliers. Sales and marketing need to be fluent in the message the brand wants to convey to customers and consumers and realize that in some cases, packaging made with recycled content may have a unique story, aesthetic, and value proposition that their teams must support. In addition to setting ambitious goals and getting strong leadership from the top, a best-in-class strategy involves embedding recycled content goals directly into professional development plans and individual performance objectives.
“If you build [the use of recycled content] into your culture, then you don’t have to persuade people at the project team level [to support it]… But if we do have exceptions or have items that don’t meet our [recycled content] guidelines, then it goes all the way up to our VP to make sure we’re doing the right thing from a sustainability lens.”
– Brand Owner
- Adjust specifications to accommodate higher levels of recycled content. Though it’s not uncommon for recycled content to meet stringent specifications, brands with rigorous specifications for qualities like color, performance, and aesthetic qualities may need to make adjustments in order to use higher levels of recycled content. This is especially true for paper and plastic packaging. When assessing recycled content specifications, brand owners and converters should think about meeting the requirements of the application rather than matching the specifications of their current supply of virgin material, keeping in mind that some virgin material may have characteristics that have been designed to provide benefits for certain applications but are irrelevant for the application at hand. Virgin specifications may be useful in providing an orientation of the material requirements, but should not be used as a baseline from which to assess recycled content specifications. It should also be noted that some aesthetic considerations made for on-shelf presence are irrelevant for sales through fast-growing online channels.
- Work with suppliers that support your use of recycled content. Brand owners that work closely with their suppliers, cultivating long-term relationships based on trust and testing for continuous improvement, have more success in incorporating higher levels of recycled content successfully into their packaging. Suppliers may be hesitant to try recycled materials in their equipment at the risk that it will not perform well or will require them to invest in additional equipment, take additional steps, or change processes which may impact their costs and time. Brand owners must work closely with their suppliers to analyze if they can or are willing to support their journey in using recycled content. If suppliers are hesitant, then assure them you will work closely with them to test materials and partner on the learning curve. If a supplier pushes back too much, consider working with a supplier that will act as a partner on a shared journey towards using more recycled content.
- Develop dedicated strategies to manage recycled content costs. Depending on the material and market conditions, using recycled content may come with additional costs. While it must be appreciated that procurement teams are under immense pressure to reduce costs, a strict lens of cost reductions will not push the market to develop or support cost stabilization. Leadership companies identify unique ways to manage costs in order to support their continued use of recycled content. This can include considering added costs as an investment in upgraded packaging, or even reducing costs elsewhere in product or packaging portfolios and using those savings to offset price premiums associated with recycled content. It is also important to establish long-term contracts with credible, committed suppliers that allow them to better control costs over time, rather than relying on short-term contracts based on current market prices.
- Be an ambassador for recycled content. Consumer confusion around what recycled content is, confusion of this concept with other sustainable packaging characteristics like recyclability, as well as a general lack of resonance with consumers are often cited as deterrents. Brand owners and retailers can be ambassadors for the use of recycled content by educating consumers about its benefits and in turn, helping to create more consumer preference for recycled content. Optimal consumer communication requires a consistent, slow-building industry message, which will occur over time as more companies venture into this territory. Brand marketing has an opportunity to showcase the commitment to more sustainable packaging and should work to gradually tell this sustainability story across many different channels.
Key recommendations for suppliers
- Work with brand owners to test recycled content materials and don’t be afraid to challenge customer specifications. Some brand owners are revisiting their strict specifications to learn where they can be relaxed to incorporate more recycled content. Suppliers should not be afraid to reach out to their customers about specifications and challenge them on the necessity of stringent specifications.
- Take advantage of demand for recycled content as a competitive strategy and invest in needed equipment to support it. As more brand owners set goals around using recycled content, and as government agencies consider instituting mandatory recycled content minimums, being able to provide customers with advice, technical support, and quality supply will give a competitive edge to your business. Investing in the right equipment that allows use of recycled content is an investment in the future success of your organization.
- Be methodical and transparent in your sourcing and tracking of recycled content inputs. Customers want to be able to report the exact percentage of recycled content that ends up in their products and this transparency depends on their suppliers. It is up to manufacturers and converters to track this material from its source and communicate it to customers.
- Invest in long-term relationships with customers. The use of recycled content in packaging is a journey on all ends of the supply chain. Working closely with your customers to provide detailed information and technical support will enable you to establish long-term, stable relationships built on trust.
Making recycled content claims to consumers: What you need to know
If a company communicates to a consumer that its package is made using recycled content, that constitutes an environmental marketing claim. In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) governs the appropriate use of environmental marketing claims and has issued its Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims (more commonly referred to as “the Green Guides”) to help marketers avoid consumer deception. Recycled content claims should be made in accordance with the Green Guides.
In order to claim a package is made with recycled content, one must substantiate that claim with supporting data. For items that are partially made of recycled content, the brand should clearly and prominently qualify the claim to avoid deception about the amount or percentage, by weight, of recycled content in the finished package. For full details see Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims, Code of Federal Regulations, Title 16 Part 260, Section 13. § 260.13.
In Canada, very similar legal guidance applies. See Environmental Claims: A Guide for Industry and Advertisers, developed by Competition Bureau of Canada and Canadian Standards Association pursuant to the Competition Act, the Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act. § 10.8.
“Marketing teams are always keen to put environmental claims on-pack. With proper substantiation, navigating the FTC’s guidance for recycled content claims is much easier than it is for many other types of environmental claims. Our marketing team appreciates ‘easy’ claims.”
– Brand Owner