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Tina Casey headshot

Raising the Recycled Paper Bar for Better Branding

Recycled paper was once confined to cardboard, paper towels and other uses that tolerate a certain degree of coarseness. Those days are long gone, and brands are poised to benefit.
By Tina Casey
Recycled Paper - Sustainable Packaging

When recycled paper first became mainstream, it was mainly confined to cardboard, paper towels and other uses that tolerate a certain degree of coarseness. Those days are long gone. Now, waste paper can be processed to yield products that are just as clean and bright as their virgin counterparts. That opens up new opportunities for brands seeking a sustainable profile, even in the previously challenging area of direct-contact food and beverage packaging.

The next big step for recycled paper

Packaging and shipping materials, napkins, paper towels, stationary, craft papers, newsprint, books, magazines, various kinds of office papers, and even kitty litter are among the many different kinds of paper products now made partly or entirely with recycled fibers.

Foods and beverages are becoming another important growth avenue for recycling stakeholders, as consumers become more accustomed to the idea that recycled paper can be safely used in that area. However, until recently the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) only allowed recycled paper in food and beverage packaging with a polyethylene coating or other barrier. The concern was that trace amounts of ink and other chemicals used in papermaking and recycling could contaminate foods and beverages.

In past years, that created a challenge for brands seeking to simplify their packaging, eliminate petroleum-based plastics, and source 100 percent recycled materials.

In 2018 the recycling industry finally reached a groundbreaking, first-of-its-kind milestone when the FDA approved Sustana Fiber’s proprietary EnviroLife recycled fiber for direct-contact food and beverage packaging. Among many uses Sustana lists takeout containers, including hot beverage and soup containers, as well as pizza boxes, bread bags, coffee bags, meat and cheese wrapping, and clamshell-type containers. 

Emily Olson, director and sustainability ambassador at Sustana, calls EviroLife the company’s “hero product.”

“We’re seeing a shift away from the linear economy of take, make and waste, both from consumers and brands, and we want to engage in a circular economy,” Olson told TriplePundit. “EnviroLife 100 percent recycled fiber is compliant with FDA standards for use  in direct contact with food. We can partner with global companies, for example, to put recycled content into coffee cups and sandwich wraps for fast food.”

Consumers are primed to accept the use of recycled paper in direct-contact food packaging, Olson observed. Recycled paper content is already commonplace in cereal boxes and other non-contact packaging. With the assurance of FDA approval, direct food contact is simply the next step.

A big step up for the circular economy

Thomas Fu, vice president of global innovation at the packaging company Sabert Corp., also emphasizes the significance of EnviroLife being FDA compliant.

Fu observes that the use of soy ink and other environmentally-friendly substances in food packaging has made a difference, and EnviroLife is a next-level improvement for brands seeking to disentangle themselves from the plastic supply chain. The availability of direct-contact recycled paper packaging also coincides with government policies aimed at reducing the flow of plastic waste, including the European Union’s Single-Use Plastic Directive.

“Especially in the last three years, the pace of innovation has picked up,” Fu told us. “We see significant innovation in sustainable packaging from raw materials, to design, to adoption by brands in the marketplace, through the supply chain.”

The now-familiar demands of environmentally conscious consumers have also played a strong role. “One thing we observe is that more and more brands are making public commitments to sustainable packaging in paper products,” Fu said. “That public commitment to big sustainability goals goes back to consumer expectations, especially with the younger generation. They are clearly driving it.”

Yes, we can science our way out of this

Movie-going audiences got a Hollywood style perspective on the zero waste, circular economy of the future through the 2015 film The Martian, in which Matt Damon’s fictional astronaut survives the harsh environment on Mars through a combination of solar power, organic farming and cutting-edge technology.

Sustana brings a similar sustainability trifecta to the packaging industry by innovating solutions that are better for business, the environment and society at large. The company’s Sustana Fiber plant deploys a chlorine-free processing system that separates moisture barriers in cartons and other containers to be turned into new products like toilet paper, tissues and paper towels. It also captures recycling byproducts for reuse as animal bedding and other purposes.

The emphasis on continued innovation enables Sustana to provide brands with a proactive edge on growing consumer interest in the circular economy.

“We are very aware of the consumer and the end user. We recognize we have a very unique opportunity to partner with brands to meet sustainability goals,” Olson explained, taking note of research indicating that consumers have become more satisfied with sustainable products over the past three years.

“More and more products are being put on the market to help consumers make different choices, compared to even five years ago,” she told us.

The growing consumer preference for environmentally-friendly products has become a powerful driver of both public policy and private-sector activity. As the recycled paper field becomes more crowded, brands that take advantage of new recycling technologies can stake out a position ahead of the pack.

This article series is sponsored by Sustana and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.

Image courtesy of Sustana

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey