Using recycled raw materials is an important option when it comes to making packaging materials more sustainable. By using recycled raw materials for a packaging, the use of new (virgin) raw materials can be avoided. Recycling allows (packaging) waste to be turned back into raw materials, which are then used to make new packaging materials or products. This saves resources and making new materials from recycled raw materials is generally a far more energy-efficient process. Recycling also ensures there is less waste that has to be incinerated or which might end up as litter. It is therefore important to keep raw materials inside the packaging chain as long as possible.
Considerations when using recycled content in packaging
- Spares new (virgin) raw materials.
- Saves energy to produce packaging materials from raw materials.
- Recycled material has a limited number of life cycles, depending on the type of material. The quality of the material deteriorates or its colour/transparency is affected.
- In the case of plastic, paper/cardboard and glass, the use of recycled material (currently) results in a smaller range of available colours.
- In the case of plastic and paper/cardboard, it is important to account for the migration of potentially harmful substances that are released from recycled packaging materials. This is generally not a problem for metal and glass because of the high processing temperatures that are used (more than 1400° C), which incinerates any inks and glues. Furthermore, glass is an inert material, which means no harmful substances can migrate in the material.
- For recycled plastic, there is a chain deficit: the costs of collecting and processing are higher than the market value of the recyclate. Furthermore, the supply security of recycled plastic with certain specifications is uncertain, compared to virgin plastic that meets the same specifications every time.
The figure below illustrates how resources are recycled and continue to move around the packaging chain. Although the goal is to keep resources in the chain for as long as possible, it is unavoidable that waste streams are formed and the quality of the recycled materials deteriorates. As a result, it is necessary to complement recycled resources with new (virgin) raw materials, preferably renewable raw materials.
By using recycled materials, you help to increase the demand for these materials. This, in turn, helps to expand the sales market for recycled material and it stimulates the necessary quality improvements and innovation in the chain. Different packaging materials present different challenges when it comes to replacing virgin raw materials with recycled raw materials.
Despite the fact that volume of collected and recycled plastic packaging materials is growing, using recycled material in packaging materials is still only possible on a limited scale. More insight and transparency in the plastic packaging chain and specifications for the streams of recyclate are needed to make it easier to replace virgin plastic with recycled plastic.
In order to properly recycle glass and maintain the high quality of the recycled material even after multiple recycling processes, the quality of the collected stream of packaging glass has to meet certain requirements. For example, porcelain (tableware), earthenware (some alcoholic beverages), mirrors, drinking glasses and oven dishes should not be disposed of in the packaging glass stream. These materials negatively affect the recycling process and lower the quality of the recyclate because they do not melt or have a different melting temperature than regular packaging glass.
Using recycled content in tin can packaging is technically feasible and done in practice, partly because the material loses none or hardly any of its material properties during subsequent life cycles. The biggest challenge of the tin can packaging chain is making sure the packaging materials are disposed of in the correct waste stream and do not end up as litter.
Paper and cardboard
Chain parties are developing new systems and business models for collection and recycling with the goal of turning waste streams into resources. Materials that used to be considered waste (beverage cartons, coffee cups, paper towels, toilet paper fibres and diapers) are now potential new raw materials. For limited volumes, utilising these fibre streams for new material applications may be a relatively too energy-intensive process.
Since 2016, repairing wooden pallets is considered a form of recycling. By doing so, value is attributed to the reuse of wooden packaging materials.
Situation in various countries
The Netherlands is one of the leading countries when it comes to the collection and recycling of plastic packaging waste. Due to a stricter definition of recycling, it continues to be a challenge to meet the European targets. Buyers of recyclate (converters) demand a higher level of quality for the recyclate. As a result, the focus of many countries is on improving their collection and recycling processes. By improving the quality of the recyclate, one can also expand the range of possible applications.
In Belgium, 348 kiloton of plastic packaging waste is produced every year, approximately 43% of which is recycled (Source: Essenscia, 2019). On average, Belgian plastics processors use 6% (post-consumer) recycled material in their production processes.
Germany is the largest market for plastic recyclate in Europe, with 2,870 kiloton of collected plastic packaging waste, the majority of which (2,230 kt) is recycled domestically. The collection system via the Duale System appears to be a success and it is also used to stimulate the application of recyclate. The new VerpackG packaging legislation states that by the year 2022 90% of all plastic packaging waste must be collected and 65% of this volume must be recycled and used to produce new products. Stimulating the use of recyclate in packaging materials, for example by offering reduced tariffs for products and packaging materials that contain recyclate.
At the moment, Denmark incinerates approximately 57% of its plastic waste to generate energy, while 41% of the plastic waste is recycled (13% is recycled domestically and 28% is exported). The Danish government has the ambition to recycle more plastic. To realise this goal, it has formulated various actions in “plastic uden spilt,” including:
- Harmonisation of the country's collection and sorting systems;
- Further expansion of the deposit-refund scheme;
- More extensive producer responsibility (2025);
- Stimulating innovation pertaining to design and recycling.
In the UK, a lot of plastic packaging waste is still being landfilled (30%), incinerated and exported. In 2018, the “New Resources and Waste Strategy” was introduced, which includes:
- Introducing a tax on single-use plastics that contain less than 30% recyclate;
- Considering a ban on single-use plastic products if suitable alternatives are available;
- Introducing a deposit on bottles and cans.
The UK Plastic Pact, under the supervision of WRAP, has the following goal for 2025: Use 30% recyclate (on average) in all plastic packaging materials.
Packaging materials and process
When developing sustainable packaging materials, choosing the right material and packaging process is an important step. When choosing a material, you are basically also choosing a packaging process. This combination determines which packaging types you can produce.
Here is an example: suppose you want to package soup. You not only have to choose a material, for example glass, plastic or metal, but also a packaging type, for example a glass bottle, a glass jar, a plastic bag, or a metal can. Each of these options calls for a specific processing process, since filling a glass jar requires entirely different production lines than filling a flexible bag.
The choice for a sustainable packaging solution is therefore not only limited to the sustainability of packaging materials. In addition to the material itself, the packaging process and the logistical process also affect the sustainability. This section therefore contains both information about material selection and raw materials as well as points of attention for the packaging process, packaging systems, and logistics.
Fact Sheet mineral oils (MOAH and MOSH) in recycled paper
Paper – published by Netherlands Institute for Sustainable Packaging
Verkenning ‘Kunststof Verpakkingsafval als Grondstof’ Technische en Economische Analyse
Paper – published by Kunststof verpakkingsafval als grondstof
PP and HDPE bottles of 100% PCR
Best practice – published by Netherlands Institute for Sustainable Packaging