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Recycled content in packaging: everything you need to know

Janet Schultze
Written by
Janet Schultze
/ Published on
May 11, 2023
Recycled content in packaging

Sustainable packaging comes in many forms. Organizations and activists are pushing to end production of single use plastics, petrochemical and metal-based packaging and replace all of that with recycled content and plant-based raw materials. These are ambitious goals, to be sure. And although they are not feasible within the foreseeable future, incremental steps are constantly being taken to reduce the use of ‘new’ raw materials in packaging. After all, reusing discarded packaging materials will help reduce the rate at which we deplete the earth of its natural resources, as well as divert significant amounts of waste that would otherwise end up in a landfill. In this blog post, you will learn everything about recycled content in packaging.

Requirements of recycled content in packaging

A key strategy to reducing the use of new materials in packaging is substituting some recycled material of the package for the new material. Since a recycled content product has varying physical properties and presents a contamination risk, changing a package composition to include recycled content is not an easy task. Packaging has performance requirements that must be considered.  Among them include the following:

  • Presentation - recognizable container and graphics.
  • Protection - Keeps contents intact, fresh and free of contaminants. Product lasts an expected amount of time and withstands palletizing and distribution processes. May be refrigerated, frozen and/or heated in oven or microwave oven.
  • Performance - Withstands travel through automated filling lines, as well as temperature, humidity, sealing, closing, capping and palletization.

Defining recycled content

Not all recycled materials are made in the same manner. Therefore, recycled content can be divided into two types: post-industrial and post-consumer materials. Post-industrial recycled content means that the recycled content came from a factory. This type of recycling material has better consistency since it is production scrap from similar type products and possibly larger lots of more consistent materials. There are fewer contaminants and less variability from lot to lot, so when used as recycling content, it will result in a higher quality and more consistent final product than if post-consumer recycled content products were used.  Post-consumer recycling most likely will cycle through a community recycling center and is sorted and sold from there. Naturally, materials coming from a community recycling center, when recycled, will produce materials that have a much higher chance of containing contaminants and a higher variability of physical properties, both of which present risks of poor product quality and problems during the packaging process. For these reasons, post-consumer paperboard and plastics may be better directed toward other products that do not have critical performance standards.

What makes the implementation of recycled content challenging?

As part of the package development process, material selection and industrial design is based on various factors:

  • what contents are going to be in the package,
  • what environment is needed to deliver the product through its life cycle,
  • what the manufacturing and distribution will require, and
  • the consumer behavior that is related to consuming the product.  

These elements lead to complexity, so often, particularly in the case of plastics, a combination of materials may be used in order to deliver the best results. Read more about the problems and solutions of plastic recycling.


Types of recycled materials used in packaging

Plastic packaging

For plastic packaging, recycled content is typically sandwiched into a middle layer of the overall structure. Having a multilayer structure will allow the package to maintain a safe inside layer that has direct contact with the product, a barrier layer to maintain freshness and product integrity, and to deliver a consistent and smooth outer layer surface to enable high quality direct printing or label adherence.  Appropriate sealing properties are critical for films, bags, sheeting and pouches. The physical properties of the sealant layer must be consistent in order to protect product contents from the time it is filled until the consumer disposes of the package.  Multilayer structures will prevent contaminants from the recycled content layer of the structure from leeching to the product itself and the outer surface of the package.

Specialized equipment is required to produce such rigid and flexible packages, as standard monolayer equipment does not have this capability.  Monolayer structures with some added portion of recycled resin are typically not appropriate substitutes for packaging many products because of inconsistency of recycled content, possible contamination and leeching, and an inconsistent outer surface for printing and labeling. The melt point, strength and barrier properties of a package would vary as well, resulting in a loss of product control by the manufacturer.

Paper packaging

For paperboard packaging, recycled paper has shorter and weaker fibers after being reprocessed, so recycled paperboard for cartons, cards and trays has lower tensile and tear strength, and less folding ‘memory’, which is important to the automated carton filling process. The clay coated print surface of paperboard packaging are smoother with virgin paperboard, and probably whiter, depending on the recycled content. The quality and the color of the print surface is important in terms of brand and graphics consistency and print quality. Many consumer products brands have multiple products within a brand family that are merchandised together, so the package appearance across the brand or product line should look consistent.

Importance of assessing the recycled content

All good packaging design begins with an assessment of the needs of the package from the time the product is filled from the time it is disposed in the recycling bin (hopefully). Packaging engineers will consider the appropriateness of how much, if any, recycled content is appropriate for each specific product application, and then make decisions regarding the material selection. Most consumers are likely unaware that packaging indeed has functional requirements that must be met before they pick out a product at the store. Although these decisions are made one application at a time, incremental improvements are being made every day to be able to use recycled content in consumer packaging.

How to increase the use of recycled content in packaging?

The best ways to increase the use of recycled content product is to, first, continue taking measures to deliver cleaner and more consistent batches of recycled paper and plastic to use for future applications. Secondly, evaluate the specific needs of a package during the design process to determine whether recycled content will be appropriate for the application.

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