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Responsible sourcing and usage of paperboard-based materials

Although the modern concept of sustainability has actually been around for decades, this topic has never been more relevant to the packaging industry than today. Initiatives such as the Wal-Mart sustainability scorecard show that marketplace demand for sustainable packaging solutions is growing exponentially. Sustainable packaging is larger than recycling and being a good corporate citizen—it’s a concept beginning to realize its potential to change the marketplace and provide benefits to individuals and society.

As defined by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, the goal of sustainable packaging will ultimately be achieved through a true “cradle-to-cradle” system. That means the packaging must be sourced responsibly, designed to be effective and safe throughout its life cycle, made entirely using renewable energy, and recycled efficiently after use to provide a valuable resource for subsequent generations.

Responsible sourcing begins with a look at the intended use of the materials. This view guides the purchasing decision; whether this involves using fiber-based materials alone or in combination with substrates to ensure performance with minimum material inputs.

Sourcing also considers end-of-life scenarios that aim to minimize impact on the waste stream. Sourcing and design considerations ideally aim to:

reduce the amount of material in the package,

reuse recovered material in the package and if possible design the package for additional uses, and

ensure the package can either be recycled, composted, or its energy recovered.

Design considerations should also try to minimize environmental impacts during the entire life cycle of the package—from sourcing, converting, packing, filling, transport and use, and ultimately, to recovery.

When sourcing raw materials, it is important to achieve a proper balance between renewable virgin and post-consumer recycled fiber. Considering that wood fiber can only be recycled a few times before it simply wears out, the proper balance of virgin and recycled material helps to further conserve this resource while providing desirable strength, printing, and runnability properties. Furthermore, packagers must constantly explore alternative uses for recycled fiber once it has reached the end of its value-added lifespan.

In addition to balancing recycled fiber with renewable virgin fiber, working with suppliers that obtain virgin fiber from forests certified as well-managed by programs such as the Sustainable Forestry Initiative ensures a sustainable flow of material.

Paperboard, however, is only one facet of the conversation. There are packaging solutions that combine paperboard with plastics and other substrates to reduce weight and improve performance.

Paper-based materials are an obvious sustainable choice for many applications. The point, however, is that regardless of the material, whether it’s paper, non-renewable or bio-based plastics, aluminum, steel, glass, or other materials, the life-cycle points made in this article about reducing, reusing, and recovering apply. The more package designers adopt a cradle-to-cradle perspective and reduce impacts across the life cycle, the higher the sustainability of the package and incidentally the lower its total cost.

Interested in being a member of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition? Find out more at

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