For decades now, billions of dollars in recycling infrastructure investment by the paper industry combined with support from consumers, communities and businesses have made the recycling of paper-based packaging an overwhelming success across North America.
Even so, the great success story of recycled packaging has been muddled by competing claims between and among paper manufacturers and the environmental community about how much recycled content packaging products should contain. Unfortunately, consumers, brands and retailers have been badly served by the black-or-white nature of this debate. There’s no question that recycled content contributes to the sustainability of paper-based packaging and to a more sustainable, circular economy. But does every product have to contain 100% recycled content to be sufficiently sustainable, as some insist?
The answer is no. To begin with, recycled fiber has to originate somewhere, and that origin is the virgin fiber that made up the paper product that got recycled in the first place.
Some say that the use of 100% recycled content in paper-based packaging is critical because it “saves trees.” But the demand for wood fiber from sustainably managed forests actually encourages responsible forestry practices that promote long-term forest growth. So successfully in fact, that the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported in its 2020 Global Forest Resources Assessment that U.S. forest area expanded around 18 million acres between 1990 and 2020, and forested area in Canada remained quite stable at 857 million acres during the same period. The UN FAO also reported that the greatest forest loss occurred in those regions of the world that use the least wood.
Also, recycled fibers can’t be recycled indefinitely. In the case of paper-based packaging, fibers can be recycled from five to 10 times. But over time, the process of collecting, deinking and cleaning degrades and weakens the fibers to the point they are no longer usable, and that means they must be replaced with fresh virgin fiber.
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