Jim Schneider, Vice President of Operations at Sustana Fiber, discusses the evolution of recycling and how it can change food packaging for the better.
Food packaging has evolved over the last five years – even more so in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. From a renewed interest in paper and paper board to help reduce plastic waste to recycling advancements for new sources of fiber, like cartons and release liner, help to extend the lifecycle of materials and create a circular economy.
Sustana Fiber has seen these changes in real-time. “When our facilities first opened, 100% of the fiber we received was from sorted office paper, which we would process and send back to the printing industry,” said Jim Schneider, Vice President of Operations. “Now we are at an inflection point – a point where the markets we are sending our fiber to, needs to mimic the markets on the waste stream side from which we’re receiving the fiber.”
Over the years, Sustana Fiber has demonstrated the ability to take cups, cartons and more, and recycle them so the fiber can go right back into those same products. Building a circular economy can be achieved by taking materials and turning them into fiber that can be used again – and there is a huge opportunity to do this with food packaging.
Advances in packaging
The technology to recycle food packaging has improved dramatically; much of what used to be sent to landfills or incinerated five to 10 years ago is now being recycled. Still, there is an opportunity to make packaging more recyclable, as well as include recycled fiber in different types of food packaging.
“I see materials come in every day that wouldn’t have been deemed recyclable a decade ago – even five years ago,” said Schneider. “The work that’s been done on barrier coatings, like polylactic acid or acrylics, have come a long way. Fortunately, we’ve made proactive investments in our technology, so these materials don’t create any issues for us during the recycling process. As companies look for alternatives to plastic packaging, we must ensure each solution we identify is not worse than the problem we are trying to solve.”
These advancements in recycling allow the industry to move forward with circularity. Sustana Fiber has evolved from taking office paper and recycling it into new printing paper, to having the technology to take in a variety of fiber-based products and producing fiber that can be used in products such as tissue, food grade packaging and paperboard packaging. Thanks to these technologies and investments, Sustana Fiber can recycle materials – such as gable top containers and release liners – and produce materials that can be used in food packaging again, expanding the opportunities for incorporating recycled materials into this industry.
Safe alternative solutions for packaging
The industry has also seen a push to improve the overall cleanliness of food packaging. Over the past few years, a growing number of states in the United States are phasing out or banning entirely the use of polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAs) in food packaging. Measures like this can help encourage the use of more recycled content in direct food contact packaging by confirming that the fibers are clean and safe – which is a big misunderstanding with companies who are new to using recycled fiber in these products. By producing recycled fiber compliant with FDA standards for use in direct contact food packaging, like EnviroLife®, Sustana Fiber is breaking that misconception.
“Producers of food packaging have due diligence they need to follow so they’re manufacturing a product that’s safe for the consumer,” said Schneider. “Our EnviroLife® product has been available since 2015 and has demonstrated over and over again that it meets and exceeds the cleanliness standards that are required for direct food contact application.”
EnviroLife® is 100% sustainable recycled fiber compliant with FDA standards and compared to virgin fiber, it has a much lower environmental footprint, using 9 times less water and has a 26% lower climate impact overall. Additionally, unlike other recycled fibers, it has a true zero fluorescence, which was vital in Sustana securing a letter of no objection from the FDA. This patented process allows EnviroLife® to be used in direct food contact without a barrier.
Producer responsibility and sustainable packaging opportunities
As demand for sustainable practices grows, food packaging producers have a greater responsibility to make their packaging sustainable – a responsibility to their ESG goals, to the environment, and to consumers. Companies should be seeking out suppliers who prioritize recycled content and recyclability.
Since its introduction to the market, EnviroLife® uses have only grown. EnviroLife® can be used in multiple fiber-based products including cups and food wraps, with research underway for other potential uses.
“ESG will move manufacturers to further focus on recyclability and circularity,” said Schneider. “When that happens, you’ll find that recycled fiber is always going to win on the carbon footprint, water, and energy side of things. ESG expectations will have some good influence driving packaging going forward.”
Recycling of food packaging materials has changed over time for the better. Incorporating more recycled materials into food packaging will only benefit and advance our collective journey toward circularity and enhancing the future for business, the planet and society. Sustana Fiber is proud to bring fiber products full circle with sustainable innovation.