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Sustainable Food & Beverage Packaging: From Recycling to Supply Chain

Paper is an important component in many food and beverage packaging containers—and is the base material for everything from boxes, to inserts, to labels. Incorporating recycled content into food and beverage packaging is one way to be “green,” but today, a company’s commitment to green should transcend recycling, and should instead carry all the way through the supply chain to include sustainable and responsible sourcing practices.

A food and beverage company’s packaging is the outward face of its brand, so the packaging must balance functionality, meet FDA standards and be visually appealing to command attention at the point of purchase.

In the old days, recycled paper and packaging elements had visible fiber or brown color which served to “prove” to consumers that the product contained recycled content.  Such recycled fiber packaging had a surface that was not conducive to slick, high- definition photography and graphic printing, and moreover, it may not have met all FDA requirements.  Today, however, new technology and innovations in paper production are giving food and beverage companies more choices than ever before for their packaging options.

To put it simply, packaging that looks “brown” is not always the most “green” choice –and stylized, colorful packaging can be more sustainable than brown- colored packaging for food and beverage companies.  The advent of environmentally-safe bleaching processes and color additives means that now, one cannot judge the recycled content of a package on color alone.


New paper mills in China incorporate production lines designed to adapt to specific customer requirements, and produce outputs that include packaging composed of 35 percent post-consumer waste.  As compared to traditional product manufacturing in North America, where domestic mills only offer products with 10 percent post-consumer waste, Asian mills have built multi-layer machines equipped with the latest technology and the best economies of scale.  Their resulting paper products include a higher use of post-consumer waste, while simultaneously ensuring the packaging appearance is aesthetically pleasing and functional (for frozen dinner containers, pizza boxes and other take out containers).  The result:  brands can enjoy more environmentally-friendly packaging, without compromising their sustainability goals.

It’s worthwhile to mention that unlike almost 80 percent of the packaging market worldwide, North America is still undergoing change and currently uses the highest ratio of virgin fiber per box (or per ton of board) as compared to rest of the world.  Indeed, in addition to the benefits associated with using recyclable fiber, the most modern paper mills offer greater choice when it comes to packaging surface and grade, as well as various options for coated, uncoated, or even FDA-approved packaging.

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3 thoughts on “Sustainable Food & Beverage Packaging: From Recycling to Supply Chain

  1. I worked in the paper industry for over 30 years, with the last 4 years responsible for the environmental & sustainable procurement policies of my organisation. As tends to be the case with articles written by company employees, Mr Lifshitz’s article whilst interesting & informative to the lay person, he conveniently overlooks a number of environmental issues that APP (Asia Pulp & Paper) have been publicly accused of in terms of illegal logging and deforestation over the years.

    Whilst he is absolutly correct in recommending paper & packaging purchasers ensure they have complete knowledge and assurance that the fibre used to produce their packaging is from certified & sustainable forest sources, he mentions 2 bodies i.e PEFC & IEI and not FSC (Forest Stewardship Certification), which is the largest, most environmentally demanding and most globally recognised of all forest certification schemes.

    The reason that APP do not mention FSC is because they have not & will not be able to achieve FSC certification because some or all of their Indonesian plantations have been created on areas of High Conservation Value Forests (HCVF) and this is one of the specific conditions for FSC accreditation.

    He also mentions PEFC accreditation and APP have a dubious background with this scheme as well as the following June 2009 statement from PEFC states: PEFC, as an environmental NGO promoting the sustainable management of the world’s forest, seeks to clarify questions surrounding the PEFC Chain of Custody certifications in Indonesia.
    1. There are no PEFC-certified forests in Indonesia as there is no PEFC-endorsed certification system operating in Indonesia that meets the stringent requirements set out by PEFC’s International Sustainability Benchmark.

    Indonesian companies such as APP therefore have not – and cannot – obtain a PEFC certification for its forest management practices in Indonesia.

    PEFC-certified timber used by companies in Indonesia, which have obtained a PEFC Chain of custody certification certificate, must therefore be procured from PEFC-certified forests elsewhere in the world.

    In terms of purchasers looking for responsible suppliers, again the author is correct, but it certainly doesn’t apply to paper & packaging supplied by APP as Greenpeace exposed last year with products supplied to toy giant Mattel.


    Lastly, Mr Lifshitz attacks the US paper & packaging manufacturing industries because of their higher use of virgin fibre. What he doesn’t mention is the exceptionally high carbon cost of producing recycled paper in China due to a)100% of their mills energy is generated from coal fired power stations and b) the transport emissions associated with firstly shipping waste paper for recycling to China from around the world and then shipping the finished product back again.

    In closing, I would again emphasise that the majority of the point and advice he gives is correct, the only issue I have is that it doesn’t really apply to his organisation.

  2. Ian Lifshitz has an excellent point. Many people think that “brown packaging” is always better for the environment; however,custom packaging with vibrant colors can be just as safe for the environment.

  3. Couldn’t have said it better myself, Howard Browning! Once again Environmental Leader needs to work on better screening of its articles to prevent such thinly veiled greenwash by companies’ PR staff.

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