Rethink sustainable packaging as an asset, not a liability

Robert Lilienfeld in Sustainable Packaging on August 15, 2016

You’ve probably tut-tutted when recently reading about the number of recycling centers that are closing (Hundreds of California Recycling Centers Shut Down, Mercury News/AP, July 20, 2016). The average consumer believes it’s because there aren’t enough bottles being recycled for these facilities to be profitable or cost-neutral. Thus, the urgent and almost constant media plea to recycle more.

The problem is, the scenario above is not only wrong, but actually contributes to the reason that these facilities are disappearing. In reality, we are actually recycling too much, given that low oil prices have reduced the gap between virgin and recycled resin prices. Thus, the cost advantage of buying recycled resin has disappeared, and so has much of the market for it.

The issue isn’t that there’s not enough supply, it’s that there’s not enough demand.

At a recent tour of an East Coast plastics recycling facility, the manager (who wishes to remain anonymous) told me that, “Companies tend to specify or buy recycled resins because they cost less than virgin resins. Many of these are the same companies that tout the sustainability of their products and packages, yet they purchase tactically, with price being the most important factor. If sustainability were really that important to them, they’d see the use of recycled materials as an investment decision.”

To the manager’s point, use of recycled materials should be seen as an asset, not simply a liability associated with the cost side of the ledger. In this case, sustainable materials and packaging should help build brand equity, which is the most important asset that savvy marketing managers are constantly working to protect and grow.

Does your company specify the use of recycled materials based on their brand and social responsibility value, rather than simply their cost?

If not, what’s stopping you?


What do you think? Please comment below.


Missed one of Bob's blogs? Read them here.


Robert (Bob) Lilienfeld has been involved with sustainable packaging for more than 20 years. He is currently editor of The ULS (Use Less Stuff) Report, a marketing and communications consultant to AMERIPEN and other organizations, and is a professional photographer.


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Hey Bob, As consumers, what can we do to identify the companies that are making a real commitment to buying recycled materials to use in their products? Likewise, how can we identify the phonies who only care about the bottom line? Thanks!
Bob, I have a question. If the cost of recycling is too high in the USA, how come China receives 80% of the world's recycling waste. Is there an opportunity for processing of recycling waste in countries with lower wage costs? And why aren't brands capitalising on recycled materials as part of their brand equity? Adrienna
Hi! just tuning in here because I have the same question and would love to hear your answer. /Johanna
Hi, Adrienna! Much of recycling, especially for single stream, is labor - sorting, picking, etc. Any country with significantly lower labor costs, like China, can more efficiently recycle materials. Also, because China has both the infrastructure and scale needed to recycle and then re-process and reuse these materials, they have efficiencies not seen elsewhere. Brands aren't capitalizing because they don't believe it's important enough to their customers. Come on, Millennials, help us out!
In my experience, many packaging companies claim to adhere to sustainability methods and practices. It's often lip service designed to placate shareholders or impress customers. And since they are not 3rd party certified as say Zero Waste facilities, there is no way to challenge their sustainability claims. Sad but true.
According to me , India has banned Import of such bottles to fill the gap between bottles and recycling. The main focus should shift to recycling such bottles to flakes for much more than PSF ( Polyester Staple Fibre ) . NEW INNOVATIVE uses should be researched so that the demand to recycle increases and the recyclers get fair value to their investments. This is the only way out.
Hi Bob, I have been looking for a 100% recycled / recyclable clear plastic cup with a spin on lid in different sizes and I can not find them anywhere. Any suggestions? Thanks for the great article. -Sam
Still looking, Sam!