"Bio-based," "biodegradable," "compostable," "recyclable," "recycled"; what do these terms actually mean? Educate yourself with Dordan's Sustainable Packaging Summary.
Part 1: Introduction
Sustainable packaging can be easily understood through the model of life-cycle analysis. Life-cycle analysis is a method for quantifying sustainable packaging. It looks to assess the environmental inputs and outputs of a package throughout its life cycle. From raw-material extraction to conversation, use, and disposal, sustainable packaging is best understood as being part of a complex web of social, economic, and ecological systems.
Part 2: Sustainable packaging material terminology
Recycled content: There are two-types of recycled content available for inclusion in packaging, post-consumer, and post-industrial. Post-consumer means that the material was once used by a consumer, collected by the municipality, and recycled. Examples include post-consumer RPET thermoforms where the material comes from recycled soda and/or water bottles. Post-industrial means that the material was once used in an industrial process, like thermoforming. Examples include our standard RPET, which comes from our scrap that is ground on-site and resold to our supplier to re-extrude into RPET roll stock.
Bio-based content: Refers to the material feedstock being derived from an annually renewable resource, like sugarcane. Bio-based materials do not necessarily equate to “biodegradable.”
PLA: An example of a bio-based material that is compostable in industrial composting facilities. It derives its feedstock from starch. Because it is designed to break down in industrial composting facilities, the material is unable to withstand high temperatures. Thus, PLA has not found much application in retail packaging because the lack of temperature-controlled supply-chains. PLA has, however, found application in food-service packaging and cutlery.
PLA + modifiers exist to enhance the materials performance, but these additives often render the material non-compostable. PLA can’t be recycled. Industrial composting facilities that process organic food and yard waste aren’t enthusiastic about excepting compostable food packaging because it provides no added-value to their final compost product. The infrastructure for organic waste collection and composting isn’t established in North America.
Bio-PET means that the material is structurally identical to conventional, fossil fuel based PET, but derives its carbon from an annually renewable resource. Because it is identical to conventional PET, it can be recycled. Bio-based PET is not compostable. An example is Coke’s Plant Bottle.
Part 3: Sustainability end-of-life terminology
“Biodegradable” packaging doesn’t mean anything because it doesn’t specify in what type of disposal environment the material will breakdown.“Biodegration” refers to the ability of a material to be broken down naturally via microbes present in the intended disposal environment i.e. “microbial ingestion.”
Compostable packaging means that the packaging will breakdown in industrial composting facilities per ASTM D6400 standards. Industrial composting facilities, through the introduction of oxygen and sunlight to organic waste, create compost, which is sold.
Recyclable packaging technically means, “the majority of American communities [>60%] have access to facilities that collect the material for recycling” (FTC, Green Guides). There is a distinction, however, between a material being collected for recycling and actually being recycled: What municipalities collect for recycling doesn’t often change, but what they actually sell for recycling, and therefore, recycle, fluctuates with the changing market demands.
For a material to actually be “recyclable” post-consumer, there must be the infrastructure to collect, sort, clean, reprocess, and sell the material. There must be enough of the material generated in the waste-stream to economically justify the collection and recycling thereof. There has to be a buyer for the material, which is precipitated by the assumption that there is a consistent, quality stream of material available for recycling/reprocessing.
Common packaging materials traditionally collected for recycling and recycled in North America include: R/PET water/soda bottles; R/PET rigid containers (thermoforms accepted where facilities exist); HDPE milk jugs; aluminum cans, glass containers (though many facilities are no longer collecting glass because the cost to recycle it exceeds the cost of the raw material); corrugate/cardboard; print/paperboard/cartons that don’t have multi-layer constitutes i.e. plastic laminate and/or lots of “bling” i.e. decorations.
Up until last year, China bought the majority of North America’s “recyclables” i.e. semi-sorted trash. However, China has adopted a more progressive environmental policy and will no longer be recycling the world’s garbage. Since China put a ban on low-quality imports, much of the material being collected post-consumer for recycling doesn’t have a buyer. The hope is that increased market pressure for post-consumer material will facilitate investment in domestic recycling infrastructure.
Recycled packaging means that the package has a portion of reprocessed material in the feedstock.
Part 4: Sustainable plastics for thermoforming
RHIPS: Recycled HIPS (high-impact-polystyrene)
Because RHIPS is a reprocessed material, the feedstock comes from a variety of sources; therefore, suppliers are unable to spec the percentage of post-industrial content. There is presently no post-consumer recycling stream for HIPS, due to the economics of recycling in North America. Our RHIPS supplier takes care to produce a material that meets our quality standards. All incoming material is assessed by our Quality Control Manager to insure that it conforms to our material quality specs.
RPET: The umbrella term that refers to recycled and/or reprocessed PET.
RPET can be made from post-consumer RPET, post-industrial RPET, or a combination of both (often times, also including some virgin-content). Our RPET supplier offers escalating levels of post-consumer content, meaning that we can produce thermoforms with anywhere from 25%-100% certified-post-consumer content. Post-consumer RPET comes mostly from R/PPET drinking containers, and other R/PET rigid containers. Because it is a reprocessed material, there is potential for fluctuating quality. Lower-quality RPET can have a brownish/yellow-tint and/or higher incidence of imperfections in the sheet, like gels.
Every time PET is recycled traditionally, some of its IV (intrinsic viscosity) is sheared off. IV is essentially a materials’ gooeyness/give/ability to withstand impact and force. Thus RPET for soda bottles must have a higher IV than RPET for thermoforms, for instance. PET recycling technologies now exist, however, which manipulate the regrinds’ IV, essentially up-cycling the material and allowing for bottle-to-bottle, or thermoform-to-bottle, recycling.
Lower-quality PET regrind can result in a brittle thermoform, which has potential to shatter on impact. Our RPET supplier, of both post-consumer and post-industrial material, provides consistently high-quality sheet for thermoforming. We’ve used post-consumer RPET material for a global brands’ holiday-packaging line and the material clarity and performance was held to the highest standards; the brand was satisfied with the quality of post-consumer RPET thermoforms that we produced.
Consumer brands, by spec’ing post-consumer content in packaging, help support the domestic recycling infrastructure by creating demand for the recycled material.
Part 5: Conclusion
There is no silver-bullet when it comes to sustainable packaging. However, there are steps that brands can take as they move towards developing more sustainable packaging systems. By understanding a package’s life-cycle requirements, a baseline of environmental performance can be established, off-which, progress can be gauged and measured.
Unfortunately, North America’s recycling rates have been stagnating for decades. One reason for this is because the cost of producing virgin materials has often times been less than the cost of collecting and recycling post-consumer materials. Environmentally progressive countries, like Belgium, for instance, have a 98% municipal solid waste (MSW) recovery rate; many argue that this is because private companies, not taxpayer dollars, fund the collection and recycling of post-consumer waste. Other factors contributing to high MSW recovery in the EU is the lack of available landfill space and the incorporation of incineration with waste-to-energy as a viable form of resource recovery.
In response to escalating concern over plastics pollution, the Ellen Macarthur Foundation is working to create a global circular global economy for plastics where the material is too valuable to throw way. Read more about the great plastic debate in my Packaging Digest article, How to Change Plastics' Waste Reputation.