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New Recycling Realities for Packaging

(Credit: Pixabay)

It should come as no surprise that one of the fastest growing commodities in the world is packaging. Since 2017, paper-based packaging consumption has grown nearly 20% across the US. The sector is forecast to reach over $108 billion, with an estimated 81 million metric tons expected to be produced, by the end of 2021.

Driving this massive consumption rate are services like Amazon, Uber Eats and other delivery platforms, which have grown nearly 10% over the past year. At the same time, consumer environmental awareness and demand for sustainable products and packaging has increased. According to an Asia Pulp & Paper (APP) national survey, 72% of American consumers prefer to shop with companies that have demonstrated strong sustainable commitments, and are willing to pay a premium — that is, nearly 10% more for these products.

To lure sustainable-minded consumers and capture the additional revenue, retail brands have historically turned to the most visible and logical approach to demonstrate their environmental stewardship: recycled packaging. This, however, is no longer a simple solution. Traditional brown, low-grade material does not meet the requirements for today’s consumers looking to create that restaurant experience at home or for luxury brands wanting to capture the eye of shoppers. Packaging has a purpose and still needs to perform. Food packaging needs to maintain food quality and heat. High-end packaging still requires durability, along with bright white, smooth surfaces for graphics. Ultimately, however, there is a shrinking supply of these high-end recycled materials, and retail brands and restaurants are now being forced to rethink their approach towards sustainable sourcing and seek new options to meet this sustainable trend.

No Paper, No Packaging

Many countries such as Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia and India have also implemented standards on waste products similar to the China National SWORD program, announced in 2017. This policy banned the import of reclaimed waste such as mixed paper products, plastics, and other materials for use in the development of recycled paper. Import licenses for wastepaper are only to be granted for materials that possess a fiber purity level greater than 99.5%. The ban has led to a major global shift in how materials tossed in the recycling bin are being sorted and processed. This has paved the way for innovation and new technology needed to sort, de-ink and isolate the high-value materials need to meet the SWORD Standard.

Using Technology to Save Trees

Sorting valuable wastepaper can enable waste operators to continue exporting their material overseas to markets where high purity pulp materials will command a much higher market price. One of the recent advances in recycled sorting is sensor-based technology Sensor-based technology identifies high purity paper grades, such as brown cardboard, printed cartons, plastic-coated cartons, dyed paper, newsprint, and multiple-color printed paper products. This helps to isolate and identify the high-value materials needed to meet the standards of the China SWORD program.

This, however, is not a simple task. This technology requires a significant investment from materials recovery facilities (MRF). Adding to this challenge is that very few cities in the US utilize curb side sorting bins for the variety of waste products. Additionally, an overwhelming majority of US cities and municipalities provide a single recycling bin, known as single-stream collection. Without sensor or manual sorting, much of the waste goes to landfill, without identifying the needed high purity wastepaper materials.

It’s the end-of-life that matters

The limitations of recycled paper are forcing a shift within the industry. Retail brands are now taking a holistic view of their packaging, from fiber sourcing to product development to end-of-life for their ideal sustainable solutions. With the innovation of new coatings and barriers for paper products, the biodegradable and recyclable packaging sector is helping address the end-of-life requirements, experiencing an annual growth rate of approximately 7% to 8%. The addition of alternative fiber is also helping spur a shift in sustainable sourcing. Alternative fiber products, including bamboo, straw hemp, kenaf, bagasse, cotton and barley, represents roughly 10% of the total packaging market.

The future is bright 

Despite the economic impact of Covid-19, the demand for tissue, paper and paperboard products continues to grow substantially in the US and emerging  markets such as China, India, Indonesia, Latin America. With increases in population, urbanization and the development of a new middle class, reclaiming and recycling paper for new paper products has a positive impact on the environment and job creation, and will ultimately drive the cost down as recycled pulp becomes a mainstream commodity.

By Ian Lifshitz, VP Sustainability & Public Affairs, APP Sinar Mas-Americas

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