You might think that recycled material packaging made from previously used packaging would always be the best choice if you have environmental impact in mind, but this may not always be the case. Yes, many types of recycled packaging are the best choice for the planet, but sometimes the processes used to create them actually have more of an impact than if the materials were recycled to create something else.
Reusing materials for the same kind of product as they were used for before is known as closed-loop recycling. The idea is good, but the environmental impact may not be quite as positive when factors such as the water, materials and energy needed to process the materials are taken into account. There is also the sorting and cleaning of the used materials to consider, and sometimes there are uses that are less demanding on the planet that would make better use of the materials. This is known as open-loop recycling.
Many environmental experts agree that closed-loop recycling can actually limit and impede the reuse of materials and that many forms of used packaging materials would be of most use – and less environmentally harmful – if they were free to be reused in the most beneficial way. In some cases, this would still be within the packaging sector.
New steel, aluminium and glass packaging, for example, can be produced using less energy if scrap materials are used in the process. Continuous recycling means that only minimal melt losses are experienced, and they can be used to their optimum extent. Waste paper is also commonly used in the creation of board and paper packaging in the UK, as the costs are lower than if imported pulp was used. The only downside of this is that there is a limit to the extent of paper’s recycling value, as its fibres will degrade a little more every time they are reused until the point is reached when virgin fibres are needed to add strength.
It is in the area of recycled plastics, in particular, where some experts believe materials would be better used elsewhere. Reusing plastics to create new packaging can be more expensive than using virgin materials, given the cost of breaking down, purifying and reforming, along with the expense of collecting and cleaning the packaging to be recycled. Household plastic packaging waste, for example, can end up impacting more on the planet because of de-contamination costs than if it were put to use elsewhere.