In packaging, partnerships are key to unlocking the circular economy

by John Stapel

The article is sponsored by  Sustana Fiber .

As vice president of operations at Sustana Fiber, I’ve spent a lot of time helping brands determine and improve the recyclability of their products. As a collaborator, I always consider two questions: Where can we incorporate recycled fiber to recover more materials, and how can we build a sustainable supply chain together?

According to GreenBiz’s Business Guide to Carbon Accounting, released in July: "Organizations that proactively prioritize sustainable solutions not only cultivate positive stakeholder sentiment in the short term, but set themselves up for long-term success by minimizing risk, capturing new opportunities, and gaining competitive advantage."

Organizations across industries are prioritizing sustainable solutions through partnerships. Sustana Fiber, for instance, regularly works with its partners to cultivate positive stakeholder sentiment and set them up for long-term success by helping them incorporate recycled fiber as part of a comprehensive solution for their products and packaging. For example, we’ve worked with global companies including Starbucks and organizations such as the Carton Council, the Foodservice Packaging Institute and CELAB to recover items and bring them back into the circular economy.

Sustainability has continued to grow as a top focus. Ensuring the functionality of products, along with the ability to recycle and include recycled content within the products themselves, is a top priority for brands. For example, Sustana Fiber recently partnered with Sonoco and Kellogg’s to prove the recyclability of paper containers.

Changing regulations and growing consumer pressure

Several factors influence the packaging supply chain's need for more sustainable business practices, including extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws — which place significant financial and physical responsibility for the post-consumer phase of products on brand owners. Since 2000, the Product Stewardship Institute has helped enact 129 EPR laws across 16 product categories in 33 states.

Another factor is the rising trend of purpose-driven consumerism. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, consumers have become more mindful of their environmental impact. As a result, they seek brands that support their core values, including environmental concerns. As consumers and regulators demand transparency in supply chain decisions, proving recyclability is a first step in the right direction.

"Partnerships are critical in this space," said Michael Pratt, senior sustainability specialist at packaging leader Sonoco. "The work we do with Sustana Fiber is a key piece later in the supply chain, proving that once the material is collected, it can be recycled."

Proving recyclability

Once brands have established the need for greener solutions, Sustana Fiber helps them understand how to best move forward in their sustainability journey. For instance, working in partnership with Sonoco and Kellogg’s, Sustana Fiber proved that paper containers can be processed in the paper stream at mills across the nation and made into reusable materials.

But what made Sustana Fiber the ideal partner?

"Sustana Fiber has made a name for itself in its willingness and ability to look beyond the traditional feedstock to find the next innovation and push circularity forward for the fiber industry more broadly," said Scott Byrne, director of global sustainability services at Sonoco.

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While Sonoco had previously confirmed that paper containers with steel bottoms — such as those manufactured for Kellogg’s food brand — could be recycled in the steel materials stream, the company wanted to go further to increase recyclability in the paper stream. There was already proven success in producing 100 percent recycled paperboard with up to 85 percent post-consumer fiber from bales of mixed paper at all Sonoco U.S. paper mills. To expand this effort to external mills, Sonoco reached out to Sustana Fiber.

The trial confirmed that the fiber components separate from non-fiber parts during the pulping process. As a result, the remaining fiber can be funneled back into food packaging products to create a circular economy. The "end of life" destination for paper containers is no longer the landfill, as it would have been in the past.

Meeting an evolving recycling system

Brands and manufacturers are consistently rethinking packaging designs and decisions, creating value and longevity in partnerships. However, meeting partners’ needs and helping them reach their sustainability goals requires time, effort and commitment.

"No one company is big enough to influence the entire recycling system," said Byrne.

By investing in technology and improving processes, Sustana Fiber can recycle many fiber-based products in the marketplace. For example, pre-pandemic, the company’s primary source of fiber was sorted office paper. However, as the volume of incoming sorted office paper declined as workplaces shut down in person, Sustana Fiber leveraged "gable top" containers such as paper cartons for milk, orange juice and egg whites to supplement the fiber-based feedstock.

The trial engaging Sustana Fiber, Sonoco and Kellogg's continues to progress with the next step, education.

"We are working on taking these learnings and educating cities and municipalities to help them understand what this material can do and where it can go," said Byrne.

A changing landscape requires changing business practices

With more extended producer responsibility laws coming to the forefront and consumer demand for sustainable business practices increasing, actors within the supply chain must work together to provide sustainable packaging and promote the circular economy.

Sustana Fiber has a history of innovation and successful partnerships, providing sustainable solutions across industries. Collaborations that "move the needle" on sustainability, such as Sustana Fiber and Sonoco bringing fiber products full circle, are just the first of many steps companies need to take to meet their sustainability goals. The right partner can change everything.