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Considering recycled fiber packaging? Start with a plan

Sponsored: The roadmap for packaging manufacturers and brand owners seeking to incorporate recycled fiber into products starts with organizational leadership.


Sustana Fibers helps  organizations meet packaging and sustainability goals by incorporating recycled  fiber into packaging. Image courtesy of Sustana Fiber

This article is sponsored by Sustana Fiber.

When brand owners and packaging manufacturers visit Sustana Fiber and share their packaging sustainability goals, I ask them the same question: Can you give me an example of when sustainability drove a procurement decision in your organization? 

I say this to make a point: if organizations are serious about sustainability (Sustana Fiber included), procurement decision-making must occur through a sustainability lens.

These conversations — coupled with market data on factors such as consumer demand and supply chain challenges — make it clear there is a desire to incorporate recycled fiber into packaging. However, it’s also apparent this transformation will look different in each organization. 

For partners who have been active in the space, a deeper push into recycled fiber packaging will be a natural progression, a move they’ve been anticipating and ramping up to for years. As a result, these organizations are primed for circularity.

For many others just entering the space, the transition may be akin to "dipping a toe in the water" and getting comfortable with what’s next. While every organizational need is different, a few universal principles I believe can help steer this process no matter the situation.

Start small to go big

A little bit of recycled content can go a long way in helping organizations make progress in their sustainability goals. For example, I often encourage new clients to incorporate a small percentage of recycled content in various packaging items and gradually increase these volumes as they become more comfortable with packaging performance.

Low-volume integration across various offerings — whether paper, tissue or food packaging products — limits the variability possibilities of adding a new product into the process such as recycled fiber.

Get broad-based buy-in

Bucking the status quo is hard. It often requires difficult conversations between stakeholders with differing visions, challenging long-held assumptions, finding initiative "champions" and developing research-backed conclusions.

These same lessons hold for many packaging manufacturers and brand owners seeking entry into the recycled fiber market. To illustrate this point, let’s examine a staple in the container packaged goods industry: the paper cup.

Let’s say your company’s sales and marketing department wants to put more recycled content in their cups. The cost: fractions of a penny per cup with minimal impact on consumer wallets. The department is sold on the idea.

Then, it’s over to the procurement team, who is responsible for balancing quality with the cost of goods. Most procurement managers know that even a "fraction of a penny" can increase procurement costs by millions of dollars. Does the story have to end here?

Not if your "storyline" has a strong protagonist. In this case, that protagonist may be a board or an executive who sees the larger story arc and champions the organization’s long-term sustainability objectives. 

In this analogy, an effective protagonist may use tools such as product lifecycle analysis to give the story more credibility or tout product quality assurances gained by using third parties such as the Forest Stewardship Council. The protagonist could also highlight the benefits of using recycled fibers in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and water usage compared to virgin materials while illuminating advances in recycled fiber processing technology.

Telling a compelling story also involves anticipating potential roadblocks. In the case of the paper cup, this might mean addressing unfounded fears about losing product strength due to recycled fiber incorporation or dispelling myths that "recycled" equates to being less than pristine. Evidence to the contrary, Sustana Fiber’s proprietary EnviroLife recycled fiber is FDA compliant for direct food and beverage contact — used in pizza boxes, soup containers and more.

The takeaway is that top-down leadership, clear-eyed vision, and company values are critical when challenging the status quo. Top-down commitment to sustainability goals is crucial for follow-through.

Align with technology

Aligning with technology means partnering with companies that use advanced methods that make it easier to retrieve packaging materials for repeated use. For example, throughout the pandemic, advanced technology has allowed Sustana Fiber to leverage materials such as coffee cups and gable top containers (paper milk cartons, paper orange juice cartons, paper egg white cartons, etc.) to retrieve large amounts of fiber. 

Investing in advanced technologies can be the difference between reintroducing end of life materials into new packaging and sending it to a landfill. Ensuring product recyclability also helps mitigate market uncertainties and creates a more sustainable future. A true win-win-win.

Furthermore, technology can prompt close-knit collaboration, which is crucial for packaging manufacturers and brand owners seeking to develop a circular economy — deepening stakeholder connections and crystallizing sustainability visions.

Start at the product design ground floor

For packaging manufacturers, brand owners, and sustainability teams seeking to up their recycled content game, make sure to partner with packaging manufacturers early in the development process.

Sustana Fiber product engineers can quickly determine whether a product will be recyclable (and if your sustainability goals are feasible). This upfront effort saves time, money and establishes clear expectations.

Starting the race means nothing if you don’t finish

Whether your organization is a shining model of circularity or just starting out, remember this underappreciated lesson: circularity is not a sprint but a marathon. Systemic change takes time, patience and trust-building work.

The important thing about this sort of marathon is that you are committed to finishing it. When you surround yourself with champions of sustainability — from procurement managers to brand owners — you can begin effectively contributing to the circular economy.

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