What does an environmentally “sustainable” package truly look like? Is it one made from renewable or recycled content? Or is it one that is biodegradable, compostable or recyclable? And what truly drives the so called “circular economy” that everyone is talking about? The answer, which is the ultimate cliché in the waste management industry, is that it depends[1]. It depends on who is asking the question and who you talk to. But of course evaluating renewable and recycled content options depends on other factors, such as available alternatives for that product and availability of end-of-life management strategies (e.g., composting, mechanical separation, etc.). And naturally, there may be more than just one right answer.

Renewable content:

So what does renewable mean? Renewable content refers to the use, in the manufacturing of a package, of bio-based and natural resources that can be replenished through a natural process. Current bio-based and natural resources that serve as renewable feedstocks in packaging include crops like sugar cane which are used in the production of bio-plastics and various trees are, of course, used to produce virgin paper fibres. Traditionally, and appropriately so, in order for a renewable package to be designated as such, the contents should come from well-managed sources (e.g. FSC certified paper fibres). Packaging constructed from renewable materials are just as recyclable as the packages made from non-renewable materials.

Recycled content:

Now what about recycled content in packaging? Utilizing recycled content in packaging is achieved through the process of recycling — taking existing packages and products and transforming them into new products or packaging. The majority of blue box materials (from aluminum to fibre materials) are recycled on a daily basis, helping to reduce the consumption of raw materials and energy needed in the process, and some are re-formulated into similar packages or other goods. An example of a package manufactured primarily from recycled content is Blue Mountain Plastics’ PET bottle.

Renewable materials in the Circular Economy:

So what is more sustainable, a package made from renewable or recycled content? The answer is simple again, both are and can be equally sustainable. The level of sustainability is highly dependent on who is carrying out that determination and how. The circular economy favours closed loop recycling – turning a plastic bottle back into a plastic bottle. Or better yet, upcycling – manufacturing a plastic bottle into something of even higher value. However, some packages, for food safety concerns, cannot be produced using recycled content and must be made from virgin materials, and ideally from well-managed sources. Fibre strength also comes into play, as every time paper is recycled the fibres become shorter and weaker, making them unsuitable for some purposes. On the other hand, current economics tends to hinder the development of packaging from renewable materials, thus favouring recycled content.

The aseptic carton produced by Tetra Pak is an example of a package that is recyclable and is manufactured using renewable materials, aiding in the restorative circular economy. By implementing circular economy principles, the organization is seeking to add value from the beginning to the end of the product’s life cycle.

In Ontario, under the newly released “Strategy for a Waste Free Ontario,” the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change underscores the importance of moving toward a circular economy in the waste management sector not only through design for end-of-life recovery, but also by minimizing the use of raw materials in packaging production. In certain cases, this could seem at odds with the use of renewable feedstocks from well-managed sources. However, this omission can be seen as an opportunity to highlight the benefits of renewable material use and other sustainable package criteria (e.g., extending the shelf life of a product, or the ability to store a product without refrigeration)[2] that will ultimately help lead to the same goal of sustainability and circular economy.

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This blog editorial which examined the difference between renewable and recycled content in packaging is part one in a series on what a sustainable package looks like. Part 2 of the series will look at the difference between recyclable and actually recycled packaging. i.e. just because a package is technically recyclable it may not actually be recycled in your waste management system. 

Sources:

Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change: https://files.ontario.ca/finalstrategywastefreeont_eng_aoda1_final-s.pdf.

Sustainable Packaging Coalition: https://files.ontario.ca/finalstrategywastefreeont_eng_aoda1_final-s.pdf.

[1] The joke (and reality) here is that you can never get a straight answer from a waste management professional, answer is always dependent.

[2] Other sustainable packaging criteria includes safe and healthy use of the package throughout its lifespan, and produced utilizing renewable energy and clean production technologies, and designed to optimize materials.