Viewpoint -- Good Things Come In 'Green' Packages

Dec. 21, 2004
Manufacturers are making a difference by choosing 100% recycled paperboard.

Sometimes I wonder what happens to all of the things I recycle. Do those milk jugs really become park benches? Are the soda cans melted and reformed into still more soda cans? I no longer wonder about office paper, newspapers, and cardboard boxes though, thanks to the 100% Recycled Paperboard Alliance, Washington, which was kind of enough to send information about who is using 100% Recycled Paperboard (RPB). It turns out a lot of manufacturers are using the popular packaging, which is made from 100% recycled materials. In fact, manufacturing's use of 100% RPB has helped write a recycling success story. Consider that each year 49.4 million tons of paper is recycled into RPB instead of being dumped into a landfill, according to the Alliance. The paper industry is very close to reaching its goal of 50% of its product being recycled in large part due to the demand for 100% RPB. According to the American Forest & Paper Assn., 2.8 billion tons of folding cartons made from 100% RPB were produced last year, that's up from 2.5 billion tons produced in 1970, when RPB began enjoying a resurgence in use due to Earth Day and other environmental awareness initiatives. What companies are using RPB? According to Smurfit-Stone, Chicago, one of the country's largest 100% RPB producers, the food industry uses 66%. Dry foods use 25%, frozen/perishable use 17%, beverages use 18%, and fast foods use 6%. Other consumer-packaged goods such as soap and health products also use a lot of 100% RPB. Tom's of Maine, the country's leading manufacturer of natural personal-care products, has always used 100% RPB because it reflects the $40 million company's mission of being environmentally responsible. "Packaging is a very big part of the discussion when we launch any new product," says Kathleen Taggersell, team leader of communications and public relations for the Kennebunk-based company. "We want to choose a packaging that has the least amount of impact on the environment, so if we can choose recycled and recyclable, we do." Taggersell said Tom's customers notice the 100% RPB symbol and choose Tom's toothpastes, soaps, and other products as much for the privately held company's "green" policies as for the products themselves. In fact, years ago before most communities collected paper and paperboard for recycling, Tom's customers would send the paperboard boxes back to the company for recycling. Today they still send back toothpaste tubes that recycling programs don't accept. That's an extreme example, but consumers do care about packaging and recycling, and not just consumers who buy natural products. "Recycling is a daily part of every American's life," says Lynn Harrelson, managing director of the 100% Recycled Paperboard Alliance. "I don't like to tell people what I do for a living because then they want to talk to me about what happens to their newspapers." Seriously, Harrelson couldn't be happier that Americans have caught on to recycling and demand recycled and recyclable products in packaging. When large manufacturers such as Hewlett-Packard and SC Johnson Wax make a commitment to use 100% Recycled Paperboard, you know consumer behavior had something to do with it. Those manufacturers probably are also motivated by improvements made in 100% RPB over the last five years that make it cleaner, brighter, smoother, more consistent, and more flexible. When Quaker Oats Oatmeal became one of the first products to be packaged in 100% RPB back in the late 19th Century, the package was dull compared with today's standards. "If you notice cereal boxes lately, they are looking pretty hot," Harrelson says. "They have bright graphics and embossing. These were not possible with recycled paperboard before." The process to make 100% RPB involves making a slurry out of broken down paper, newspapers, and other recyclable materials and hot water. That slurry is then dried, layer by layer, on screens and top-coated with a painted finish. Those sheets then go to companies that make them into cartons, such as cereal boxes. On the surface the process sounds simple, but Harrelson says it is a complex production that has been tinkered with over the years to improve the final product. "In the last five years the industry has really retooled so that you might have an old machine, but if you put all the bells and whistles on that baby, it will hum." With all those improvements, one might expect a larger increase in the number of companies using 100% RPB. Harrelson said a lot has do with perception. Margarine and butter makers in Canada, for instance, use 100% recycled paperboard. But U.S. manufacturers of those goods have resisted, even though Canadian consumers are obviously still satisfied when they use butter and margarine. Whiteness is also an issue. Older mixes of 100% RPB weren't as white and having a white interior for a carton wasn't possible. Today, FedEx uses 100% RPB for its packages, and the inside is white, white, white. "The challenge is getting the word out that things have changed," Harrelson says. "You might have an engineer who says 'I tried it years ago, and it didn't work.' Well, he was using old board." Tonya Vinas is IW's managing editor. She is based in Cleveland.

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