Sustainability and packaging continue to be in the spotlight because of attention on single-use plastics and recyclability. Recent research indicated 79% of consumers and 72% of brand owners prefer products in sustainable packaging. And two thirds of consumers are actually willing to pay more for sustainable brands.
But mixed messages have left consumers confused. Eco-friendly. Recyclable. Biodegradable. Renewable. Compostable. These terms have become overused, interchanged, and misunderstood. “Green” is not black and white. We’re cutting through the clutter to better understand the differences.
Recycling is the process of recovering waste material and turning it into new materials and products. Recyclable material still has useful physical or chemical properties after serving its original purpose and can be remanufactured into new products.
The benefits of paper recycling include reducing greenhouse gas emissions, extending the supply of wood fiber, reducing the amount of energy needed to produce paper products, and saving landfill space.
There is a misconception that only recycled paper should be used. The assumption that more recycled fiber is always better for the environment is accurate only for lower grades of paper, like cardboard. Higher grades of paper for printing and packaging may take more energy to recycle used paper than to use fiber from sustainably grown forests. Many paper products can be recovered an average of 4-6 times before their fiber strength is lost. Each time recycling occurs, the fibers become shorter and weaker. That is why virgin pulp must be introduced into paper production to maintain the strength and quality of the fiber.
A critical part of sustainability is ensuring that recyclable packaging is actually recycled. Eighty percent of what we throw away could be recycled – yet only 28% actually ends up being recycled. Encourage your customers to recycle their packaging.
Biodegradable refers to the ability of materials to break down and decompose in the environment. A material is biodegradable if it can break down by natural biological processes. Biodegradable materials decompose through a chemical process where microorganisms break down the materials into natural elements (e.g., water, carbon dioxide, new biomass).
The process of biodegradation depends on the conditions of the specific environment and on the material itself. The rate of decomposition varies significantly. The right temperature, humidity, and heat trigger the biodegradation process.
Lots of things are biodegradable – if given enough time. The term biodegradable describes only that a material can biodegrade into natural elements with the help of microorganisms – without specifying the time to degradation in the environment. Plastics in particular are known to take decades or even centuries to break down naturally, but they will break down.
Paper, which is primarily composed of plant material, is biodegradable. As a wood-based product, the biodegradation of paper is similar to that of wood in a natural soil environment. The rate at which paper biodegrades is dependent on factors such as light, water, oxygen, temperature, bacteria, and fungi. Bleaching pulp removes lignin, a main component in wood that provides structural strength, but is difficult to break down. The removal of lignin increases biodegradability.
Composting is an accelerated and managed form of biodegradation. Compostability describes material which biodegrades within a timeframe of 180 days under controlled composting conditions – high humidity, high temperature, and the presence of microorganisms and bacteria. Compostable materials decompose only when in a carefully controlled environment, where factors such as source material, moisture content, temperature, oxygen levels, and acidity are closely monitored.
For compostable materials, the actual end result of the material is very important. Compostable materials are similar to biodegradable materials, as they are both intended to return to the environment safely. However, compostable materials go one step further by providing the earth with nutrients once the material has completely broken down. The matter turns into nutrient rich soil, leaving no visible, distinguishable, or toxic residue.
While composting and biodegrading processes involve the same action – decomposing a material into an organic state – the decomposition occurs in two very different ways. Compostable materials require a specific setting in order to break down, whereas biodegradable materials break down naturally. Typically composting is a faster process, but only under the right conditions.
Biodegradation is simply the process of nature taking its course and breaking down materials to their component parts. Being biodegradable does not have a time limit placed on it. When a company notes their product is biodegradable, that means it will break down when placed in a landfill. The key, however, is to consider how long it will take for the product to biodegrade. Some products degrade in months, while others take years. When shopping for sustainable packaging, the less time for biodegradation the better.
Compostable materials take the added step and provide nutrients to the earth once the product has fully degraded. But this must occur in an accommodating compostable environment, with high heat and moisture and the appropriate level of oxygen. Compostable products do not always biodegrade naturally in a landfill. They have to be placed in the right kind of conditions – conditions that are often only found in industrial compost facilities. Compostable products will take much longer to break down if in a landfill, especially an air locked landfill with no oxygen.
All compostable items are biodegradable, but not all biodegradable items are compostable. For a biodegradable item to be considered compostable, it must break down in a single composting cycle. It must also reach specific standards regarding toxicity, disintegration, and both physical and chemical effects on the resulting compost.
Misconceptions exist about the sustainability of coated papers. They are not all created equal. The difference lies in finishes versus laminates.
Paper coating materials play an important role to enhance the quality of paper. Coated paper is coated with a mixture of materials to improve gloss, brightness, smoothness, opacity, or other printing properties. With surface coatings, coated papers can achieve near 100% biodegradaton; the overall decomposition process is unaffected.
However, polycoated paper contains plastic layers, laminates, or wax coatings. While these types of papers are used to improve functionality such as water resistance or tear strength, the plastic fragments are typically less biodegradable. Many plastic-coated paper products are coated with polyethylene, which has not been shown to biodegrade in a reasonable time.
Further, packaging items consisting of different elements or material layers can result in separation challenges. Multi-material packaging – blends of different plastic types, metal foils, or coatings – consists of various material types that cannot currently be easily and economically separated for recycling.
JBM Packaging does not use any plastic, silicone, or wax coated papers in our packaging development process.
You don’t have to choose between sustainability and great packaging! You can create beautiful packaging with sustainability in mind. JBM’s packaging products are designed to be displayed. All of our products are customizable, so what your customers see is perfectly on brand.
Where to start. When looking for sustainable packaging options, increasing the transparency of material composition and specifications is very important. Request specific lists of materials, types of inks, sourcing information, sustainability attributes, and responsible forest management certifications. Transparency and accountability are important to understand the impact of your environmental footprint.
When possible, choosing paper is always better because it’s naturally biodegradable and renewable. And when choosing paper, select a supplier supporting responsible forest management and certified to the Forest Stewardship Council® (FSC®) and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative® (SFI®) chain of custody standards. These certifications verify that the source of the wood supply is tracked from the forest to the product.
Innovations in design, production, and recycling technologies will continue to push the boundaries of what is feasible for sustainable packaging. We’re working hard to be part of the solution. Since 1985 JBM has focused on manufacturing packaging products with only pulp-based materials to sustain our natural resources. We’re dedicated to cultivating a Better World together.
Choosing what’s best for our planet is not always easy – but it’s always worth it.
Sources: EPA, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, FPA, Nielsen, Sappi, Bureau of International Recycling, Evergreen Packaging, NCASI
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