Lisa McTigue Pierce, Executive Editor

March 29, 2019

6 Min Read
The power of recycled content in packaging

The circular economy is on a roll—and using recycled-content material in packages is one way to ensure U.S. recycling businesses will succeed. But reliable sourcing and quality can be a challenge. Here are tips from sustainably driven brands Lush Fresh Handmade Cosmetics and Annie’s on how they are not just coping but excelling.

Karen Moll, print and gift packaging buyer with Lush Fresh Handmade Cosmetics, and Patrick Keenan, packaging engineer at General Mills (who leads packaging R&D for the Annie’s brand), will be among expert panelists discussing recycled content at SPC Impact 2019 (Apr. 1-4, Seattle, WA), the leading sustainable packaging conference organized by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition. Taking place on Tues., Apr. 2, the “Knowledge Café: Scaling Recycled Content Adoption in Packaging” panel discussion will help demystify the world of recycled content.

Here, Moll and Keenan talk about lessons learned, ocean plastic, consumer education and more.

What was your biggest challenge to using recycled-content material in product packaging and how did you solve or overcome it?

Keenan: As a brand, there were two key areas that were a challenge to implementing recycled content:

1. Educating brand marketers on the value to a ‘’closed-loop system” so they could see the value in it; and

2. Finding a cost-effective, reliable and abundant supply of recycled materials. 

Moll: The biggest challenge for me was just how resistant many of our print partners were to running 100% recycled paper. I heard a lot in my early days at Lush at how hard it was to get 100% recycled paper—how it would be too expensive, and when there were problems printing, it always came back to the properties of recycled material and we wouldn’t have these problems if it was virgin fiber paper.

I’ve just had to be relentless in our requirements. It’s the line in the sand to do business with Lush and the suppliers who want to work with us find a way to get the 100% recycled paper and run it to our high standards.

What lesson did you learn about incorporating recycled content in your packaging that you wish you had known before you started and why?

Moll: It was a bit of a black hole in terms of finding out who was producing 100% recycled paper and what grades existed. Different projects would come up out of the blue that had new paper requirements and then it was scrambling to find paper that worked.

I learned over time to partner with printers that understood our needs and were willing and open to including the mill in our paper discussions so both understood our vision and what we were trying to achieve. Over time I’ve been connecting more and more directly with the mills or reps to have these discussions but could have probably solved some heartache had I started those conversations earlier in my Lush career.

Keenan: Recycled-content packaging is like any new packaging material a brand is attempting to qualify.

There are many daunting hurdles that a brand needs to overcome to ensure that the packaging is safe for the consumer and does not impact the quality of the product. Tackling each concern one chunk at a time and qualifying it like any other packaging material makes it flow seamlessly through the process. 

I have often heard companies in the packaging industry say that the brands aren’t willing to adopt recycled-content materials because of misconceptions around consumer beliefs with regards to appearance or concerns about the supply source. For our brand and consumers, this was/is non-existent, and I really want raw material suppliers and converters to understand that these minor visual defects or perceptions are actually not realized by consumers.

How important is it to explain to consumers how recycled-content packaging contributes to the business value of recycling? And how do you explain it to them?

Keenan: Did you know the back of a cereal box is the one of the most read packages? Annie’s Friends Cereal used the back of the box to highlight the benefit of recycled content [see photo at the top of this page]. We used a graphic of Bunny’s sorting their recycling and a game to pick out the types of materials. We used this to illustrate that by recycling these materials, they get reused into things like our cereal liner!

I also believe that there may be an industry-wide benefit to standardizing how we communicate recycled content using a similar approach as the How2Recycle Label to provide consistency to the consumer.

What do you most look for when sourcing packages with recycled content?

Keenan: Three things:

1. Lowering our overall “bunny footprint” while maintaining safe product. Bunny Footprint is how our brand communicates our overall carbon footprint, as our brand mascot Bernie is a bunny.

2. Being a leader in the industry and having a competitive advantage with differential packaging. 

3. Educating consumers! 

What characteristic about recycled-content packaging would you most like to improve and why?

Keenan: Four things:

1. Consumer understanding.

2. Access to materials.

3. A standard protocol for PCR verification.

4. Price and performance parity with virgin are key to driving acceptance. 

Creating the ability to swap in and out of recycled content versus virgin seamlessly should be the end goal. 

Moll: In terms of paper, I have no major complaints on any of the characteristics. There are going to be some inherent issues using recycled paper that we will probably never move away from. I’ve accepted that sometimes when we add certain finishes to the paper that there could be registration issues. But our suppliers have really exceeded expectations by working on running recycled paper to minimize any issues.

It can be challenging to bring on new suppliers that aren’t used to working with recycled paper. I wish it was more widely used so we can bring on new suppliers quicker with minimal problems.


When it comes to recycled content for plastic packaging, when does it make sense for brands to consider recycled ocean plastic and when does it not? 

Keenan: This is a hot topic with our consumers. I think using any chance to educate consumer that a brand cares is a great way to build trust. Driving value for recycled content by including it in packaging drives up the price of recycled plastics and gives an incentive for people to collect plastic waste—thus helping to reduce ocean plastic. 

So, either including actual ocean plastic or recycled content both are on the path to eliminating the problem.


EastPack 2019 (June 11-13) is the region's premier packaging event connecting professionals from companies like PepsiCo, Pepperidge Farms and Mars with suppliers offering the latest packaging technologies, including a range of automation solutions, from semi-automatic equipment to sophisticated "smart" systems. Register to attend today!

About the Author(s)

Lisa McTigue Pierce

Executive Editor, Packaging Digest

Lisa McTigue Pierce is Executive Editor of Packaging Digest. She’s been a packaging media journalist since 1982 and tracks emerging trends, new technologies, and best practices across a spectrum of markets for the publication’s global community. Reach her at [email protected] or 630-272-1774.

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