Everyone is familiar with “the three Rs”—Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. These are individual actions consumers can take in their daily lives to be more environmentally friendly, but it’s also important to remember that brands play an important role here. Case in point: the recyclability of product packaging.

Ultimately, packaging needs to perform: It needs to function, to carry, guard, store and even re-use products. At the same time, according to a survey conducted on behalf of Asia Pulp & Paper, 57 percent of Americans would like to have more sustainable options for the paper and packaging they purchase. Brands today must balance the multiple priorities of sustainability, functionality and design when choosing product packaging

The challenge

While recyclable paperboard is often used in product packaging, there are many situations—especially when it comes to food products—where this paperboard must be treated with polymer barrier coatings, chiefly polyethylene (PE), which makes the packaging less sustainable.

Barrier-coated paper and board packaging is essential to provide the right environment for storing and transporting food, as well as increasing product shelf life. However, it also makes recycling problematic. Unless the PE barrier coating is removed from the paperboard, the packaging is not recyclable. If recycling is attempted, these lined materials require more resources, more energy and dedicated facilities to attempt to separate paper from polymer. And from a compostability viewpoint, the situation is no better. The coated paperboard takes between 500 and 1,000 years to biodegrade. The sad reality is that despite efforts to recycle PE-coated/polymer-lined paperboard, most must be incinerated.

Potential solutions?

Thanks to advances in technology, renewable barrier packaging board exists that is a capable, sustainable and recyclable alternative to non-eco-friendly barrier substrates and is suitable for myriad applications. Now more than ever, packaging producers should be seeking these polymer-free, renewable barrier boards that still maintain the essential characteristics required for products like food. For example, Charta Global, a strategic partner to Asia Pulp & Paper, offers an expanded suite of Foopak products, including a new Bio Natura Cup that utilizes a sustainable, biodegradable alternative to traditional coatings.

Yet despite a desire to “do the right thing” for the environment, many companies simply may not realize the types of packaging they currently use for their food products are not as sustainable as they think and can become a real problem for the environment.

With more consumers demanding sustainable options and an increasing number of companies committing to comprehensive end-to-end sustainability programs, how can brands ensure they are meeting sustainability commitments? The most critical action to take is to closely examine the company’s current supply chain to understand whether all elements of product packaging are meeting the sustainability standards sought. 

Examine entire chain

Given the complexity of today’s global supply chains, brands may need to look beyond the first layer of suppliers and examine the practices and processes of their supplier’s supplier. They must review all of the members of the supply chain to understand what type of product packaging is being used—and if it doesn’t meet sustainability standards, find out if other solutions exist that will.

Advances are being made when it comes to creating product packaging that meets the sustainability standards that consumers demand. It’s up to the brands to ensure they are taking advantage of the latest innovations and technologies.