Packaging Sustainability’s Alphabet Soup

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In our last blog post, we talked about the fourth “R” of sustainability, Reality. In this blog post, we’ll shed some light on additional letters that are important in maintaining a nutritious sustainable packaging diet. These three letter acronyms are the base for packaging sustainability’s alphabet soup: FSC, SFI, APR, MRF, PCR, SPC, and EPR.

FSC – Forest Stewardship Council

The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is one of the two primary certifying organizations for paper products. The FSC’s mission is to “promote environmentally sound, socially beneficial, and economically prosperous management of the world’s forests” with the vision of meeting “our current needs for forest products without compromising the health of the world’s forests for future generations.” 

GD_750x435-70_cropped_auto_1509483569_imageThe FSC has two certifications, Forest Management and Chain of Custody. For packaging, the Chain of Custody certification is used to ensure products are made with wood, pulp, or other forest products coming from sustainably managed forests, and those products are traced all the way through the supply chain to the consumer. Participating organizations must be certified by an independent certification agency. Part of that certification involves demonstrating the incoming FSC certified raw materials can be kept separate and traced through the participating organization’s operation. Each link in the supply chain must be certified in order to market the FSC certification and “pass along the FSC claim to the next company” in the supply chain. FSC has additional information on their website: https://us.fsc.org.

In packaging, FSC chain of custody certifications are prevalent in folding cartons as well as pressure-sensitive labels. Outlook Group will work with customers interested in pursuing the FSC chain of custody certification for their products.

Sfi-sustainable forest INITIATIVE 

The second prominent certification for paper products is the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI). SFI is “a solutions-oriented sustainability organization that collaborates on forest-based conservation and community initiatives that demonstrate and enhance our shared quality of life while providing supply chain assurances through standards, data, and authentic stories.” FSC has three types of certification: a Forest Management Standard, a Fiber Sourcing Certification, and a Chain of Custody Standard. 

SFIstackedLike the FSC, the SFI Chain of Custody Certification is often used for packaging applications. A third party organization administers the certification program. Once certified, a participating organization is licensed to market the SFI on-product labels showing the product is SFI certified.

One nuance of SFI in North America is that participating organizations are required to support research initiatives to “advance our collective interests in clean water, biological diversity, climate change, forest health and sustainable forestry . . . .” In 2018, over $50 Million was invested in these research initiatives. Details of those projects and additional information on SFI can be found at: www.sfiprogram.org.

apr-association of plastic recyclers

In terms of plastics, the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR) describes themselves as the “Voice of Plastics Recycling. APR is an international organization that represents recycling companies, Consumer Product Goods (CPG) companies, equipment manufacturers, testing laboratories, and “others committed to the success of plastics recycling.”

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The APR is a leading voice in what types of packaging can be recycled, and what the requirements are for those packages to be recycled. They have a wealth of information on their website describing the recycling industry, testing criteria, position papers on various recycling topics, as well as their APR Design® Guide for how to design packaging to be more recyclable: www.plasticsrecycling.org.

Outlook Group has a portfolio of label materials that are APR certified. Choosing an APR certified label material allows our customers to help close the loop by making the packaging more compliant with the recycling processes.

mrf-material recovery facility

Many of the member companies of APR are the companies that pick up your recycling, sort it, clean it, and sell the recovered materials. They operate Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) which take in the commingled materials from our recycling bins and separate the packaging into the various streams of materials that can be recycled and sold for a profit. The MRF’s use various mechanical, visual, and manual sorting processes to do the separation. The outputs of the sorting processes can then be sold to other companies that can further process those streams of plastics, paper, glass, and metals. Packaging that doesn’t fit the specific requirements of the recovered streams is sent to the landfill.

As Jim Woller mentioned in last month’s blog, only about 9% of packaging has been recycled, ever. MRFs are looking at ways to be able to process more types of packaging profitably. Their investments in technology over the next few years will be one key to being able to keep more packages from going to the landfill.

pcr-post consumer recycled content

The output from MRFs that is incorporated back into packaging is known as Post-Consumer Recycled (PCR) content. PCR content is a burgeoning sustainability topic because every pound of PCR content used in packaging is a pound of material that didn’t previously go to the landfill or end up in our oceans.

PCR material has been around for years with rigid containers such as those used for laundry detergent. Those containers are often made from High Density Polyethylene (HDPE), a plastic resin which is also used for milk jugs. Recycling milk jugs and laundry detergent containers provides a source of PCR material for the rigid container manufacturers to purchase and incorporate back into their laundry detergent containers.

Method laundry detergent was the first back in 2015 to use 100% PCR material to make their laundry detergent container, read about it here.

In Method’s case, they chose Polyester (PET) resin. In order to purchase PCR PET resin, there needs to be a supply of PCR material. Water bottles are made from PET resin and are a key output material from the MRF’s I described above. We will talk in more detail about the recycling process and how PCR materials are provided in a future blog post.

spc-sustainable packaging coalition

Recycling is one aspect of packaging sustainability, and there are many others. An organization that encompasses all aspects of sustainable packaging is the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC). The Sustainable Packaging Coalition exists to “bring packaging sustainability stakeholders together to catalyze actionable improvements to packaging systems and lend an authoritative voice on issues related to packaging sustainability.” The SPC is “the leading voice on sustainable packaging and we are passionate about creating packaging that is good for people + the environment.”SPC-logo

The SPC has their definition of sustainable packaging here.

Their definition provides a broad framework for a closed loop packaging process that is built on the three pillars of sustainability: Social, Environment, and Economic, or alternatively, People, Planet, and Profit. I like this graphic from OSEA which shows how the three pillars overlap to create sustainability:

OSEA pillars

The SPC framework incorporates the need for packaging to benefit consumers, use recyclability and “green” production and transportation processes to benefit the environment, and the need to package products profitably. If packaging fails in any of those three areas, it will not be a long term viable solution. The SPC framework does not dictate a certain packaging format, nor explicitly limit packaging choices. Any type of packaging that meets the criteria is considered sustainable.

epr-extended producer responsibility 

As is often the case, industry does not move fast enough to satisfy the demands of some people and they turn to legislation to try to increase the pace of progress towards a goal. Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) legislation is the three letter acronym in the realm of packaging sustainability. EPR legislation is the collective term for local, state, and national laws designed, as noted in Wikipedia, to “reach an environmental objective of a decreased total environmental impact of a product, by making the manufacturer of the product responsible for the entire life-cycle of the product and especially for the take-back, recycling and final disposal.”

In terms of packaging sustainability, the EPR legislation imposes fees on the product manufacturers to pay for the packaging waste or recovery. Europe has been leading the way in this area for years. A company in Germany proposed a “green dot” program in 1991 and now 20 European countries have implemented the program. The manufacturers put a green dot on the package signifying they have paid a fee that goes to waste management companies to recycle or dispose of the packaging. The amount of the fee depends on the number and weight of the packages. Details of the program can be found here.

In the U.S., Maine and California have been active in proposing EPR legislation. There have also been two bills proposed at the national level to date. TLMI hosted a webinar on the topic last month. The webinar has additional details on the EPR legislation and how two systems have been implemented in Canada that may serve as a model for how to structure a system in the U.S.

This area of legislation will continue to grow and be debated. Product manufacturers and packaging providers will need to keep an eye on what develops in this area over the next few years. My hope is that whatever laws do get passed, they take into account all three pillars of sustainability, otherwise the system conceived by the legislation will fail.

Those three letter acronyms are some of the key ingredients in the sustainable packaging alphabet soup. Hopefully, this blog was able to whet your appetite for next month’s blog on the New Plastics Economy and how it is related to many 2025 corporate sustainability goals.

Learn more about Outlook Group's sustainable products and efforts to reduce environmental impact.

Author:
Brian Conrad
Director of Market Development-Labels
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