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Not all recycled paper is created equal. These new guidelines help designers create better packaging

We don’t think much about how paper mills operate. These new guidelines show why we should.

Not all recycled paper is created equal. These new guidelines help designers create better packaging
[Illustration: Daniel Salo/Fast Company]
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Most every product you buy comes in some kind of packaging. And even though paper is recyclable, it’s not all created equal: Some packaging is much easier to recycle than others.

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The American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA) just released a new guide to help product designers make paper packaging as recyclable as possible. It’s not enough that the packaging has the little chasing arrow recycling symbol, which indicates that it can be sent to a local recycling system. There are actually all kinds of design flourishes that can make packaging harder to recycle. The guide show how packaging add-ons, like adhesives or silver embossing, could affect a product’s ability to have a second life.

This report is the first time the AF&PA has offered such extensive guidelines. It pulled data on how non-fiber elements and treatments like adhesives, inks, and dyes affect the recyclability of paper-based packaging. It surveyed 86 paper mills across the U.S. that belong to AF&PA member companies and process recycled paper products. (AF&PA members represent about 86% of the total manufacturing capacity for paper and paperboard in the U.S., according to the association.)

The biggest takeaway from the guide includes some baseline good news: “What we found was every combination of paper-based packaging with non-fiber elements attached to it is recyclable,” says Brian Hawkinson, AF&PA executive director for recovered fiber. But some of those elements are more challenging than others for mills to process.

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The guideline uses a handy matrix to compare the recyclability of different kinds of paper packaging, like corrugated packing, cartons, and paper bags that had different non-fiber treatments on them. It found that hot-melt adhesives, bioplastic barriers, and plastics are among the most challenging for mills to process. Meanwhile, water soluble inks and dyes and UV inks cause the fewest problems.

While the AF&PA doesn’t currently plan to make this guidance a requirement, they say it does arm designers with information to make better decisions about the paper packaging they put into production, and it underscores that aesthetics can have a negative affect on recycling performance. “[Packaging for consumer products] has to be a balance of performance characteristics, aesthetics, and recyclability,” says Hawkinson. “This [guide] helps folks in the manufacturing supply chain to better understand the tradeoffs.

He adds that it might help designers and manufacturers choose between, say, water soluble adhesives versus hot melt adhesives, which are more challenging for some mills to process. “Are there things that they can use to achieve the kind of performance and aesthetic characteristics that they want and improve or maintain recyclability?” he asks. This guide can tell you. By looking at the whole picture, designers can make commercial paper packaging that protects the product in transit, stands out on the shelf, and at the same time, is as easy to recycle as possible.

About the author

Lilly Smith is an associate editor of Co.Design. She was previously the editor of Design Observer, and a contributing writer to AIGA Eye on Design.

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