For decades now, billions of dollars in recycling infrastructure investment by the paper industry combined with support from consumers, communities and businesses have made the recycling of paper-based packaging an overwhelming success across North America.
Even so, the great success story of recycled packaging has been muddled by competing claims between and among paper manufacturers and the environmental community about how much recycled content packaging products should contain. Unfortunately, consumers, brands and retailers have been badly served by the black-or-white nature of this debate. There’s no question that recycled content contributes to the sustainability of paper-based packaging and to a more sustainable, circular economy. But does every product have to contain 100% recycled content to be sufficiently sustainable, as some insist?
The answer is no. To begin with, recycled fiber has to originate somewhere, and that origin is the virgin fiber that made up the paper product that got recycled in the first place.
Some say that the use of 100% recycled content in paper-based packaging is critical because it “saves trees.” But the demand for wood fiber from sustainably managed forests actually encourages responsible forestry practices that promote long-term forest growth. So successfully in fact, that the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported in its 2020 Global Forest Resources Assessment that U.S. forest area expanded around 18 million acres between 1990 and 2020, and forested area in Canada remained quite stable at 857 million acres during the same period. The UN FAO also reported that the greatest forest loss occurred in those regions of the world that use the least wood.
Also, recycled fibers can’t be recycled indefinitely. In the case of paper-based packaging, fibers can be recycled from five to 10 times. But over time, the process of collecting, deinking and cleaning degrades and weakens the fibers to the point they are no longer usable, and that means they must be replaced with fresh virgin fiber.
Without the continuous introduction of virgin fiber into the system, the manufacture of recycled packaging would quickly come to a halt.
For paper products that require additional processing for higher brightness, like those used to package consumer electronics, cosmetics and over-the-counter pharmaceuticals, there is also a tipping point at which the environmental advantages of increasingly higher percentages of recycled fiber meet diminishing returns. Like virgin paper production, recycling plants use resources like water, energy and chemicals, and like virgin mills, they generate air and water emissions. The more that recycled fiber has to be processed for use in new products, the greater the environmental burden will be relative to virgin paper manufacture.
What a fair life cycle comparison of the two processes – virgin and recycled – shows is that both processes have their environmental advantages and limitations. For example, although virgin pulp manufacture requires more overall energy than the equivalent process for recycled pulp, it relies primarily on the use of greenhouse gas neutral biofuels while recycled pulp production relies more on greenhouse gas generating fossil fuels. The recycling process generates more waste – from inks, fillers, degraded fiber and other contaminants – than the virgin process, which uses the entire tree and recycles over 95% of primary pulping chemicals.
The point is that, rather than competing with each other, both types of fiber complement each other in a perpetual cycle of sustainability unique to the paper industry, and that’s what we need to tell businesses that use paper-based products to package and ship their goods and consumers who purchase and receive those goods.
We should also spread the word that regardless of whether paper-based packaging is made with virgin or recycled content, it is recycled more than any other type of packaging in North America. In the U.S. for example, the most recent figures available from the Environmental Protection Agency show paper-based packaging is recycled at a rate of 80.9%, with corrugated cardboard boxes recycled at 96.5%. This compares with plastic packaging at 13.6%, glass at 31.2% and aluminum at 34.9%.
It’s important to note that paper products cannot be “upcycled” in the recycling process. This means, for example, that corrugated cardboard packaging cannot be recycled into higher quality paper grades. However, higher quality grades can be “downcycled” to produce recycled packaging grades.
100% recycled content is desirable and environmentally beneficial for many packaging applications, but not for all. Rather than establishing an arbitrary goal of 100% recycled content in all paper-based packaging, or other types of paper for that matter, the ultimate objective should be to recycle as much paper of all types as possible and make the best use of that recycled fiber in products that make the most environmental sense.