Biodegradable Cardboard Packaging
Packaging that is fully recyclable without compromising performance or cost
Packaging is an unavoidable part of everyday life. It protects products, preserves them, enhances them, displays important information, acts as a marketing tool and allows for safe transportation.
However, the unfortunate truth is that packaging is often viewed as waste. Even worse, packaging often ends up this way too.
Therefore a key consideration of good packaging design involves the generation of less waste following the end of its’ useful life, whilst still helping end-consumers to use it and the contained products efficiently.
This is why there has been a growing focus on recyclable packaging solutions such as corrugated cardboard.
But what are the real benefits of switching to recyclable packaging? And are there are any drawbacks and hidden costs?
This guide aims to provide a balanced, holistic argument as to whether eco-friendly or biodegradable packaging would make sense for your business / application.
Types of Eco Packaging
Which types of environmentally friendly packaging are suitable for your business
Before beginning to ascertain whether recyclable packaging (and which type) is suitable for your business, it is important to fully understand what is meant by this, as well as a lot of the other commonly used terms such as biodegradable, eco-friendly, reusable and so on.
There are effectively three main types of what are often considered environmentally friendly packaging:
Reusable / returnable packaging: This is any form of packaging that can be cleaned and re-used. An example most people would be aware of is glass milk bottles are simply cleaned and reused.
However, this can apply to a wide range of supply chain products too, including plastics such as totes and handling containers.
Recyclable packaging: This is packaging made of materials that can be used again, usually after processing.
Recyclable materials include glass, metal, card, paper and – increasingly – certain plastics. However, by far the most common form of recycled / recyclable packaging is corrugated cardboard.
Biodegradable packaging: This covers any packaging and material will easily break down in the soil or the atmosphere (in most cases if sent to landfill).
Whilst materials such as glass and metals will eventually break down over time, the most common form of biodegradable packaging is paper based material such as card and corrugated.
Facts & Figures
The truth behind the environmental benefits
So as the above highlights – and despite a number of common misconceptions – corrugated packaging is widely regarded as arguably the most environmentally friendly form of packaging available today.
Forestry / Raw Materials
For example, it is often stated that the world’s forests are being decimated to make paper when, in reality, the virgin fibres for corrugated board come from sustainably managed forests that exist solely for the materials they provide.
In fact, it is estimated that there are 25% more trees in the developed World today than there were in 1901.
Birch and / or Pine trees are generally used in the manufacture of cardboard (providing the virgin – or new – fibres), with these trees being easy to grow in various environmental conditions. Their fast growing qualities, and recyclable nature, means forests can be managed and harvested sustainably.
Ultimately this promotes use of renewable materials.
Besides this, corrugated cardboard has a recycling rate of around 84% in the UK (and rising). This is actually the highest recycling rate of any type of packaging, and is aided by well-developed recycling streams and processes.
To provide an example, every four months an area the size of Greater London is saved from landfill by recycling corrugated cardboard alone.
Waste corrugated can be recycled seven times before its fibre becomes too weak for further use. Some cardboard grades / materials are manufactured from almost 100% recycled materials, whilst the majority average between 70% and 90% recycled content.
And the 16% of corrugated material that is not recycled is fully biodegradable.
This reduces the environmental footprint of the material, with corrugated recycling also aiding environmental conservation by preserving natural resources (due to the reuse percentage when considering the production of new cardboard products).
Finally, and owing to the percentage of corrugated that is successfully recycled, the amount of energy required for manufacturing corrugated packaging is vastly reduced.
Effectively it means very few additional materials and energy is required to manufacture new corrugated material (and in turn the cardboard packaging it becomes).
By extension, this reduces environmental impact and pollution.
All of this adds up to ensure that by choosing to use corrugated packaging (if designed and engineered correctly), you are committing to an environmentally friendly solution that does not sacrifice performance or aesthetics.
Environmental Advantages of Corrugated Cardboard
- Can be recycled up to 7 times before fibres become too weak
- Minimises waste sent to landfill
- Fully biodegradable if sent to landfill
- Leads to careful management of forests (renewable materials)
- Recycling reduces materials / energy required for manufacturing new packaging
Corrugated Packaging Products
Expert packaging manufacture for your business
So what types of packaging can you source that are manufactured from corrugated cardboard?
The below highlights (and offers links to further info) the main types of corrugated packaging available through GWP. This includes traditional forms of retail and transit packaging, as well as corrugated cardboard alternatives to plastic products such as spools, polystyrene replacements and other specialist products.
Switch to Recyclable Packaging
Assessing whether recyclable packaging is the right option for your business
Many businesses just like yours are beginning to explore the possibilities of switching to fully recyclable packaging solutions.
This may mean avoiding or completely eliminating the use of plastics, films, foams and other types of void fill (e.g. pellets, air sacks etc.).
Corrugated cardboard is surprisingly versatile and can be engineered to provide surprising amounts of strength and durability in the supply chain. It is also possible to create integrated or standalone inserts and cradles that can effectively replace foam or polystyrene in certain applications.
Corrugated cardboard can also be enhanced with a number of environmentally friendly coatings (all of which do not affect biodegradability and / or recyclability) to provide additional properties.
This includes resistance to moisture and oils, anti-static performance, corrosion inhibiting properties and colours and print for marketing.
However, it must be noted that to successfully replace non-recyclable materials requires high levels of packaging design expertise and extensive knowledge of the various types of corrugated materials available.
As such, it is important to work with an established packaging company well versed in design, engineering and testing of packaging (such as GWP) when considering the switch to corrugated.
If you would like free, no obligation advice on whether your packaging could be switched to fully recyclable materials, then please do not hesitate to speak with one of our advisers.
Recyclable Packaging Design
Additional ways to aid sustainability
Besides switching to recyclable packaging materials, there are other ways in which working with experienced packaging designers can aid the sustainability of your packaging.
For example, optimising the size of your packaging can result in size and weight savings, minimising the number of trips and therefore fuel for delivery and transit.
Focusing on materials can also result in – with careful design and testing – a pack which performs as well but uses a much lighter grade of corrugated.
GWP Packaging designers can in fact utilise software that can calculate the stresses and loads that your packaging is likely to experience in the supply chain, which then allows selection of the optimum strength of material.
How a pack is designed can also minimise material usage through the creation of a smaller “foot print”.
It is also important to consider the impact that transit damage can have on the environment.
Goods damaged during handling or delivery will generally be sent to landfill. There will also be the environmental impact of needing to manufacture replacements, as well as the business impact of lost sales and unhappy customers.
As such, the performance of your packaging will always be considered alongside the need to reduce environmental impact.
The ways in which your business can benefit from recylable packaging
As well as the environmental benefits of switching to recyclable packaging, there are a number of other advantages that your business can realise as well.
Summary of business benefits
- Better consumer perception of your brand(s) and business
- Opportunity for brand positioning in specific markets
- Potential for increased sales amongst certain demographics
- Enhanced customer satisfaction through easier disposal / recycling of packaging
- Reduction in your organisations carbon footprint
- Possible cost reductions through minimised material usage
- Potential reduction in transit costs through minimised materials / volume
- Possible savings in storage / warehouse requirement (dependent on materials used)
Recyclable Packaging Limitations
Applications where recyclable packaging alternatives should be considered
However, in order to provide a balanced argument, it must be highlighted that there are certain scenarios where using recyclable packaging such as corrugated cardboard is actually counterproductive – and less sustainable than non-recyclable packaging.
For example, plastic totes such as those manufactured from Correx®, that are used as part of closed loop supply chain are often a better choice than a corrugated alternative. This is because their longevity when compared with expendable (single trip / use) packaging means that vastly less containers / boxes / etc. are required.
This in turn reduces overall material use, minimises transit costs through the required additional deliveries, as well as less energy consumption used in manufacture.
Another area where corrugated alone isn’t always suitable is for exceptionally valuable or fragile items.
This is because the environmental (not to mention monetary) costs of the damaged items must also be considered.
If a product breaks in transit, chances are it will be sent to landfill. This will also mean additional energy and material use in manufacturing a replacement. Plus the additional transport to return and redeliver the item.
As well as the environmental impact however, it also has a significant impact on your business – resulting in written off stock, unhappy customers who are less likely to purchase from you again, as well as a negative impact on your brand and business reputation.
Finally, there will always be some products which just aren’t suited to transit in corrugated. Even with specialist coatings, certain oily or moist products will degrade the corrugated material, rendering it ineffective.
Food produce is likely to spoil quicker (leading to increased food waste in landfill), and can also lead to the material becoming unsuitable for recycling (e.g. pizza boxes being too greasy).
Packaging Recycling Process
Full breakdown of how packaging material is recycled
When considering the switch to recyclable packaging, it is also useful to have an understanding of how the recycling process works.
As such, please see below for a brief overview of the typical process that takes place once your packaging is ready to be recycled.
You may also find this article on Packaging Waste Regulations useful, as it covers government recycling targets alongside details of whether your business has any legal obligations.
Step 1: Collection
The first (and perhaps obvious) stage is collection of the waste corrugated material. This may be through kerbside collections from consumers, or industrial agreements with manufacturers that generate large volumes of waste material.
Usually, they are measured and transported to recycling facilities, which are commonly paper mills.
Step 2: Sorting
The next stage is to sort the different materials.
Firstly, any cardboard that is coated or waxed (i.e. for food contact) is separated and undergoes a separate specialised recycling process.
The remaining material is then sorted into corrugated cardboard and what is known as “boxboard” (thinner material with no fluting that is used for items such as cereal boxes etc.).
This sorting is crucial as the different materials are ultimately used to manufacture different grades of material by the paper mills / recycler.
Step 3: Shredding and Pulping
The next step following the material being sorted is to shred and then pulp it.
Once the cardboard has been shredded into fine pieces, it is mixed with water and chemicals that break down the fibres in the paper. This turns it into a sort of slurry type substance.
This “pulp” is then blended with new or virgin pulp that usually comes from wood chips, as this helps the substance to become firmer and solidify, as well as helping regulate the strength of the new material.
Step 4: Filtering
The pulp material is then passed through a wide variety of filters. Firstly this eliminates foreign objects such as tape or glue, before contaminants such as plastics and metal staples are removed (using a centrifuge process – plastics float on top, metals sink to the bottom).
The next process is to removing all of the inks from the pulp (using chemicals), effectively cleaning the pulp for the final processing stage.
Step 5: Finishing
The cleaned pulp is spread out to dry on a flat conveyor and heated cylindrical surfaces. As the pulp dries, excess water is also pressed out, which effectively forms long rolls of solid sheet from the fibres.
These can then either be used for the outer liners of the corrugated material, or the fluting depending on the grade being produced.
The material can then either be turned into corrugated cardboard by the paper mill and sold directly to packaging manufacturers, or sold in paper form to other companies who convert the papers into various materials.
Virgin vs Recycled Fibres
When discussing recycling of papers and corrugated cardboard, two terms which are often used are virgin and recycled fibres.
But what do these mean?
Virgin fibres are effectively a pulp that is obtained by a chemical process which removes lignin (a class of complex organic polymers that form important structural materials in the support tissues of vascular plants) from wood. Effectively, it is making paper from wood.
Recycled fibres refer to pulp that has been obtained from recycled material – essentially cardboard packaging or papers that have been used already but have been recovered to be recycled.
But which are better for the environment?
Many people believe virgin fibres have an increased environmental impact as they involve deforestation.
However, this is untrue as the forests are carefully managed and replanted, becoming a renewable source of material (and net oxygen producer). In fact, the only major drawback of virgin fibres is the requirement for more treatment of the process water.
Recycled fibres actually take more fossil energy to process. Virgin fibres also need to be added to recycled fibres as they can only be reused 7 – 8 times before they are too weak (after this the fibres are so small they are effectively washed out of the process).
Saying that, using recycled fibres helps to reduce landfill, ensures that the existing material is used to its full potential, and that virgin fibres can be used in applications where their specific properties are specifically required.
Commonly asked questions about recyclable packaging
No article on recyclable packaging would be complete without addressing the most commonly asked questions – which you can find (including answers) below.
If you still have further questions however, please contact a member of the GWP team who will be able to assist.
What types of packaging can be recycled?
A wide range of packaging materials can now be recycled, including glass, paper, metals such as aluminium and some plastics. The most commonly recycled material in the UK however is corrugated cardboard.
What is the difference between recyclable packaging and biodegradable?
Recyclable packaging refers to materials that can be processed in order for them to be reused. Biodegradable on the other hand refers to packaging that will decompose over time (e.g. paper based products). Packaging can either be both (such as cardboard) or just recyclable (such as plastics).
Can cardboard packaging really replace non recyclable materials (such as polystyrene)?
There are a number of scenarios where it is actually possible to replace packaging that cannot be (or are hard to) recycle) with materials which can be. For example, corrugated cardboard fittings and inserts can be used instead of polystyrene inserts, or anti-static Corstat® can be used to replace ESD plastic bags.
Are there scenarios where recyclable packaging shouldn’t be used?
There are some applications where it does not make sense to use to traditional recyclable packaging. One is closed loops supply chains, where reusing plastic totes / containers over many trips actually reduces the overall environmental impact. Another is for packaging very specialist (or fragile / expensive) items where the potential damage incurred through breakages (and the waste this generates) is outweighs switching away from foams or other inserts.
Should I include recycling logos on my boxes?
If your business’ packaging is recyclable, then it is a good idea to let your customers and / or end users know this. There are a wide range of free to use recycling logos for packaging, along with a number which require accreditation by specific organisations / schemes.
What does virgin vs recycled (fibres) mean?
When discussing corrugated cardboard, you may hear the terms “virgin” and recycled”. This refers to new material harvested from forests (virgin) as opposed to those reclaimed from previously used material (recycled). Both have an important role to play in the manufacture of most corrugated grades and are frequently mixed to achieve the best balance between sustainability and performance.
My customers want more eco-friendly packaging – can you help?
GWP have more than 30 years’ experience of creating successful environmentally friendly packaging. However, as we also manufacture a wide range of reusable and specialist packaging, we are perfectly placed to provide your business with truly impartial advice on the most sustainable – and cost effective – option for your business.
Recyclable Packaging at GWP
How GWP aims to promote recyclability
As a result, we will always work alongside you to ascertain the economic as well as environmental impacts that your packaging may have.
This includes ethical sourcing and use of material, analysing how the packaging will be used (and if it is the most suitable for your specific application), what the unit costs will be to your business and how the packaging itself will perform.
It even extends to advising you on suitable recycling symbols to use on your packaging.
Environmentally friendly or recyclable packaging that doesn’t do its primary job – protecting your products – is actually counterproductive, with increased returns actually proving to have a greater environmental impact.
We are also not afraid to recommend the use of plastics and foam for specific applications where the ability to reuse them will have less of a long term impact than expendable or single trip packaging (even if that is recyclable).
Besides this, we understand our responsibilities as an environmentally friendly packaging company. This is why we have taken steps to reduce C02 emissions, have extensive recycling systems at our manufacturing plants and are constantly exploring ways to reduce material use.
So if you feel that you would like to switch your business to recyclable packaging, GWP can offer you honest, impartial and no obligation advice on the best solution for your specific market, application or requirement.
Find Out More
Free advice and guidance on switching to recyclable packaging
If you are looking to switch to recyclable packaging at your business – but are concerned about performance, costs or the scale of the project, please don’t hesitate to contact us here at GWP for free, impartial advice.