This article is sponsored by Sustana Group.
The world is different after COVID-19: Consumer sentiment about corporate responsibility to provide environmentally sound options is among the more noteworthy shifts. For example, 93 percent of global consumers say COVID-19 influenced their views on sustainability, and more than two in three global respondents say environmental issues are very or extremely important to them personally.
As we return to public spaces such as schools, offices and shopping malls, consumers are looking for options that they know are better for the environment, such as recycled fibers for paper, bathroom tissue and to-go containers.
As businesses rise to meet the challenge of switching to recycled fiber for single-use items, they should choose substitutions wisely, as savvy consumers require authenticity and transparency on green claims.
Expert green consumers
A decade ago, debates over the merits of one material’s environmental impact over another were left to professionals. But personal experience with extreme weather and the pandemic has turned many into amateur sustainability analysts, a habit most evident in shifting shopping patterns. Consider that 62 percent of consumers say they’re willing to change their purchasing behavior to help reduce negative impact on the environment, up from 57 percent in 2019. Many Millennials (71 percent) and Gen Zers (67 percent) say addressing climate change should be a top issue, however, 60 percent of Millennials and Gen Zers worry that businesses don't share their priority.
Meanwhile, ubiquitous and relentless plastic pollution is driving bans on plastic to-go containers worldwide. Single-use plastic items for takeout including cups, plates, cutlery and straws is a primary source of the estimated 14 million metric tons of plastic pollution washing into waterways and oceans every year.
To reduce plastic pollution and negative impact on the environment, the goal should be to replace single-use plastic items with ones made from recycled fiber. This transition has begun to gain traction, as we see more brands inquiring about sustainable recycled fiber to be used in packaging with direct food contact.
"What I’m starting to see now, and where we need to head towards more, is the circularity of the economy where we’re not just being asked to take fiber trash and recycle it. Now, we’re taking that material and bringing it up to a cleanliness standard as well to be used in direct-food contact packaging," said my colleague Jim Schneider, vice president of operations at Sustana Fiber.
Case in point: Sustana’s EnviroLife is one of the first 100 percent recycled fibers compliant with FDA standards, and is often used to produce paper cups, sandwich wraps and food cartons. Compared to the average virgin fiber, it has a much lower environmental footprint, using nine times less water and has a 26 percent lower climate impact overall.
Collect more to recycle more
When it comes to sustainable paper and packaging products, the word is out: Increasing recycled fibers is imperative to curbing deforestation, pollution from mills and associated climate impacts. But a circular economy for fibers isn't yet what we need it to be. Shifting into a circular economy for fibers requires businesses stay engaged with the process, from purchasing recycled fibers all the way through to supporting recycling collection initiatives.
The pandemic provided an object lesson in the need for source diversification and investment in collection agreements. When the world went on lockdown, the main inflow of fibers for recycling — offices and schools — was shut off, and production of recycled products slowed just when we were ramping up demand for food packaging. The Carton Council, an industry organization committed to growing carton recycling in the U.S., stepped in to increase recycling rates of fiber products that people use at home — such as milk cartons, juice boxes and other aseptic, gable-topped boxes — with consumer awareness campaigns.
"Food and beverage cartons contain valuable fiber that is used to make new paper products people use every day, which is crucial for a robust circular economy," said Jason Pelz, vice president of recycling projects for the Carton Council North America and vice president of sustainability, U.S. Canada, Central America and Caribbean, at Tetra Pak. "As companies and people adapt to the new normal, recycling is more important than ever to ensure there is enough feedstock available to make new sustainable products."
Source diversification alone couldn’t get the job done, new investment in processing equipment for these types of inputs was needed to put recycled fiber output back on track. The agility and collaboration demonstrated in the face of unprecedented challenge needs to carry over post-pandemic as we tap all latent post-consumer fiber resources to churn out a truly circular economy for fibers.
Stepping-up recycled fiber, what the packaging and procurement teams need to know
Big fiber-product buyers including corporate offices and quick service restaurants need to start buying more paper and packaging products that contain recycled fibers. As they do, they must look out for authenticity, transparency and expand the conversation around value when it comes to sourcing.
"Consumers feel that they are making a positive environmental contribution by buying products with recycled content," Schneider said. "Right now, in sandwich shops, you’ll see ‘30 percent recycled content’ on the food packaging and sandwich wraps. Once more of that gets into the hands of the consumers, there will be more of that demand."
Meeting that demand means that procurement standards should start including a recycled fibers requirement. Access to these products may be limited at first, but procurement standards stipulating recycled fibers in products will create needed market pull to drive demand for increased investment in recycling technology, collections and production. A more connected market will also bring down the per-unit cost.
Look for products, such as EnviroLife, with robust life-cycle analysis including, for example, human toxicity, ozone depletion and water quality assessments in addition to climate impact. This will provide the authenticity and transparency companies need to prove to their customers that they are committed to the cause.
And with any business, the last word always goes to cost. But buyers need to be prepared to expand the conversation on the value of recycled fibers beyond the typical per-unit comparison. Broadening the value to include the importance of these eco commitments demonstrates businesses' dedication to the circular economy through sustainable innovation and bettering the future for their customers, and our planet.