SPC guidelines help to identify best uses for recycled paper fibers

John Kalkowski

January 30, 2014

3 Min Read
SPC guidelines help to identify best uses for recycled paper fibers

Optimizing the use of recycled content continues to rank among the key strategies by which brand owners and retailers strive to make their packaging more sustainable. This is true because, unlike some other strategies, the use of recycled content is something consumers relate to and generally understand.

However, several factors contribute to the feasibility of using recycled content in any packaging application, as GreenBlue's Sustainable Packaging Coalition outlines in a report released this month, Guidelines for Recycled 257017-SPC_Logo.jpg

SPC Logo

Content in Paper and Paperboard Packaging. These factors vary based on the quality and consistency of the recovered fiber, the types of additives used to produce the fiber substrate and the treatment of the fiber during the packaging conversion process. Mill processing capabilities also can play a role in the use of recycled content as not all pulp and paper mills are equipped to process high volumes of recycled content. Each mill's limitation on the use of recycle fiber is based on its ability to cope with the laminates and other modifications made to the original fiber substrate.

Generally speaking, it is easier to use recycled content in non-direct food contact packaging like apparel hang tags, sporting equipment boxes and electronic components or software boxes. Packaging for direct food contact applications like flour, sugar, artisanal bread bags and even cereal boxes can only use recycled content when it can be demonstrated that the recycled fiber is compliant with Title 21, Part 176.260 of the FDA Code of Federal Regulations. This regulation specifically allows for the use of recycled fiber provided that it does not cause the product to become "adulterated or mis-branded" due to any migration of "poisonous or deleterious" substances. Using recycled content in some applications like butcher wrap, which must be able to withstand considerable exposure to liquids in addition to meeting FDA regulations, and microwave popcorn bags, which must be virtually contaminant free to avoid the possibility of metal flakes sparking a microwave fire, may simply be impractical.

The good news is that significant advancements in mill technology, development/refinement of a variety of additives that can increase fiber strength and/or reduce moisture content, and innovations in coatings that can improve printability and print quality are enabling the use of recycled content in even some of the most challenging applications. Whether a challenge becomes an actual limitation often depends upon a supplier's and/or customer's level of comfort with making trade-off decisions. While the functional integrity of the packaging should never be sacrificed, aesthetic standards can be modified in some instances without significant risk.

To help brand owners, retailers and converters better understand, communicate and make well-informed decisions, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition assembled a 20 member-company working group to develop a set of practical guidelines for using pre- and post-consumer recycled content in a variety of packaging applications. Available on our website now, the guidelines look at six fundamental criteria-performance requirements, regulatory compliance, technical/operational factors, aesthetic considerations, material availability and cost-to identify the opportunities and challenges associated with the use of recycled content for each packaging application. They also include pragmatic solutions or work-arounds for many of the barriers. You can access the guidelines now at www.sustainablepackaging.org.


Katherine O'Dea is a senior fellow and director, Advisory Services for GreenBlue, and the author of
Guidelines for Recycled Content in Paper and Paperboard Packaging. For additional information about
the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, email [email protected].

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