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    Making Your Packaging Environmentally Friendly


    © International Trade Centre, International Trade Forum - Issue 2/2001

    Paper: consider the environmental pluses and minuses as a packaging material.

    Historically, packaging was mainly used to transport goods, particularly foodstuffs, from their place of manufacture direct to the customer. Packaging later became prominent in the preserving of food products for longer periods. The packaging revolution has continued, catering to an ever-expanding range of consumer products that are sold through ever-widening chains of distribution.

    Packaging helps extend a product's shelf- life by acting as a protective barrier, thus slowing the rate of deterioration. It is increasingly required to preserve "natural", untreated and unprocessed foods imported from all parts of the world, so that they can meet consumers' increasing demands for freshness.

    Apart from containment and preservation, communication between the manufacturer/seller and the consumer is a third and equally important function of packaging. In supermarkets, where products are normally displayed next to their competitors, it performs a marketing function. The packaging should help the product to attract the attention of a prospective customer. Packaging has a fourth function: to provide legal information. Most food, drink and pharmaceutical products are required by law to carry on packaging necessary product information, so that it is easily accessible to customers. Packaging must fulfil other demands made on the parties concerned, not the least of which is its final disposal in an environmentally compatible way.

    Recycling packaging materials

    The main categories of material used for packaging are: paper and board; glass; steel (mainly tinplate); aluminium; plastics; wood; and jute and bamboo.

    Paper and board

    The main advantages of paper and board are their low cost for a given level of rigidity, and their excellent printability and promotional potential. They also have a good environmental image because they are inherently biodegradable and their raw materials are renewable.

    These properties are exploited to the full in the construction of corrugated boards, which give high strength-to-weight ratios and stiffness combined with good burst strength. Paperboard materials are admirably suited for highly decorated and promotional packages, widely used to give an excellent-quality image.

    However, paper and board present no barrier to gases and lose their strength and rigidity when wet. They therefore have to be coated and/or laminated with impermeable materials to obtain these properties. As a result, it is technically difficult and costly, though not impossible, to re-pulp and recycle these materials for use in similar applications.

    To overcome this deficiency, the packaging industry has developed ways of reusing the waste from, for example, laminated beverage packaging made from board, aluminium and polyethylene.

    Paper and paperboard are both produced from cellulose fibres, obtained mainly from wood. Raw material sources for paper and paperboard include logs, and by-products of the lumber industry such as sawdust, as well as recycled fibre from newsprint, magazines, books and other paperboard sources.

    In practice, recycling is not straightforward and presents many technical challenges. The additives, inks and coatings used to improve the functional properties of papers make it difficult to re-pulp them. For example, it is almost impossible to recycle corrugated board that has been waxed or coated with plastic film. Moreover, paper and paperboard products cannot be recycled indefinitely since the fibres tend to deteriorate and shorten in length progressively with each cycle. In addition, adhesives and tapes used in conjunction with these materials can clog the recycling equipment.


    Producing glass from its raw materials, sand and soda ash, requires high initial energy inputs. By contrast, use of recycled glass in the manufacture of new bottles and jars requires substantially less energy and is thus preferable from the resource conservation standpoint. Its main disadvantages are its weight and fragility, and its vulnerability to abrupt temperature fluctuations. Food and beverage containers, which make up the bulk of glass packaging used, are primarily white, green or brown and represent the main source of material available for recycling. Colour variation and contamination with ceramic particles can cause difficulties during recycling of cullet (broken or scrap glass melted down for reuse).

    However, there is currently more cullet being generated than can be used to make containers. Therefore applications in fields other than packaging have to be developed. For this reason, used glass is being introduced as a raw material in sectors such as the construction industry.


    Steel has traditionally been recycled worldwide, since as much as 40% of steel scrap goes into the production of new steel. Every can produced contains, on average, 25% recycled steel.

    Its main advantage over other packaging materials from an environmental standpoint is that it can be readily and cheaply separated from mixed waste using magnets. As much as 50% reduction in energy use can be realized by mixing a proportion of scrap with the virgin steel. Tinplate scrap can be recycled at levels of up to 100% for applications other than packaging.

    The main drawback of steel is that, like glass, it is a heavy material with low intrinsic value. In addition, only a small percentage of steel and tinplate-can scrap lends itself to recycling into steel for can-making. Steel-can recycling is thus less financially viable than, for example, recycling of aluminium.


    Aluminium is an ideal material for recycling. It has high intrinsic worth, and hence scrap value. There is thus a considerable incentive to reclaim the metal from packaging waste. The economics of collection and recycling of aluminium for packaging applications are generally favourable.

    The fact that recycling does not degrade aluminium means that new aluminium can be made from 100%-recycled material. This has enabled the creation of a practically closed-loop system, the only packaging material for which such a facility is available.


    Plastics are perhaps the most versatile group of materials used in packaging. This is because they are basically chemicals which can be modified to satisfy a broad spectrum of packaging and other demands.

    Bottles from PET (polyethylene terephthalate) are currently the most extensively recycled plastic packaging material. They are produced by injection stretch-blow moulding, a process that strengthens the material when stretching it. Primarily used for beverage bottles, it can thus be readily identified by the consumer and thus easier to collect than other plastics. It is economic to recycle even with existing collection systems, and there are well-developed markets for the products of its recycling such as carpet fibres and fibrefill.

    Another important feature of used PET is the possibility of converting it back to its original components by chemical means, using hydrolysis or methanolysis. The United States' Food and Drug Administration has approved PET produced by chemical recovery of this sort for food-packaging applications, and the recovered polymer has also been used for beverage packaging.


    Wood is relatively heavy and can be expensive as packaging. It provides no effective barrier to gases or moisture and its use in food packaging is therefore restricted. As a result, the use of wood in packaging, although still widespread, is in decline.

    Jute and bamboo

    Jute and bamboo are no longer generally regarded as suitable packaging materials for exporting foodstuffs, because of the contamination risks that their open package structures such as sacks and baskets can present.


    Tamper-proof packaging

    A successful package is one that protects the product throughout its shelf-life, keeping it fresh and free from damage so that it remains attractive and suitable for its intended use. But today good packaging may also need to be tamper-resistant and tamper-evident.

    EC directive on packaging and waste

    The European Parliament and Council Directive 94/62/EC, concerning packaging and packaging waste, calls on member states to achieve packaging waste recovery rates of 50% to 65%, and recycling rates of 25% to 45% by July 2001.

    The directive makes it obligatory for packaging "producers" to take appropriate steps to recover packaging waste arising from their own production in line with the "polluter pays" and the "extended producer responsibility" principles. The waste is required by law either to be taken back or recovered by the producers, or made available free of charge for recovery by a third-party waste-recovery organization.

    Environmental impact studies

    Major studies have been undertaken in Europe and North America to analyse environmental impacts caused by production and use of packaging. One key finding was that transporting of packaged products by the consumer could become a significant environmental factor if many long-distance shopping trips are made for relatively small purchases.

    In general, legislation on food-related packaging is a complex and specialized matter. Packers may require expert help to guide them through the legal maze. Any combination of product and packaging material may be unique, requiring special consideration. The exporter is therefore strongly advised to seek guidance from packaging and food research bodies serving countries of interest. ITC can provide information on these bodies.

    Drawn from the ITC technical paper, Guidelines for Safe and Environmentally Acceptable Export Packaging, by S.G. Panvalker. Contact E. Piskolti-Caldwell, Export Packaging Information Officer, at piskoltie@intracen.org for more information.