Part two of our management briefing on sustainable packaging focuses on recycled material. As Jonathan Thomas writes, recycled products are central to the sector but the amount they are used differs by material, while competition from other products and safety issues could have an impact on future growth.

Products made either partially or totally from recycled materials remain a mainstay of the world's sustainable packaging industry – packaging featuring recycled materials accounts for approximately 90% of the US market, while global demand is expected to expand by around 4% per year as a result of increased recovery rates.

However, the recycled content sector is coming under increasing pressure, as technological developments allow the development of newer varieties such as biodegradable packaging and products made from more sustainable materials. 

Recycling features very strongly in the market for paper and board packaging. Over half of the cardboard used in Europe comes from recycled material, for example, while over half of all European cartons are produced using recovered fibre and/or waste paper. More than 80% of corrugated board used in the UK is recycled, while paper accounts for almost half of all recycled packaging material in the UK, equivalent to over three million tonnes.

However, there are signs of a possible threat to the use of recycled material in paper-based packaging within the food industry. A 2011 survey carried out in Switzerland found that mineral oils in printing ink from recycled newspapers could come into contact with foods via the cardboard packaging. The only products in the survey to escape serious contamination were those with thicker inner lining bags. As a result of the survey's findings, the UK-based breakfast cereals producer Jordans - owned by Associated British Foods - announced it was to stop using recycled cardboard.

It seems likely that this study will lead to calls for the development of better barrier protection for packaging using recycled paper - any large-scale switch back to using virgin (rather than recycled) fibres is likely to be resisted on environmental grounds. However, this instance serves as an example of how food safety fears could possibly override environmental and ethical concerns when designing more sustainable varieties of packaging. 

Usage of recycled material in plastic food and drink containers has traditionally been on the low side compared with other sectors of the packaging industry. One reason for this is plastic's relatively low recycling rate – as an example, the UK government department Defra set down a target of 27% for plastic packaging recycling in the UK in 2009, compared with 80% for glass. In addition, recycled plastic bottles are not usually used in packaging applications for cost reasons, while fears of contamination from post-consumer material decrease their appeal within the food and drinks industry. 

However, the amount of recycled material in plastic packaging remains on an upwards curve. Two of the most common varieties of recycled plastic which are now starting to feature within the food and drinks industry include recycled polyterephthalate (rPET) and recycled High-Density polyethylene (rHDPE). Packaging containing these two recycled materials is increasingly being used in sectors such as milk, bakery goods and fresh produce, while plastic shopping bags also contain increasing amounts of recycled rather than virgin material. 

Some of the leading plastic packaging suppliers have been increasing usage of recycled material in their products. One such example is Nampak Plastics, which supplies around 2bn plastic milk bottles to customers such as Arla Foods and Dairy Crest every year. As of 2010, all of its HDPE bottles now contain 10% recycled material, thereby saving up to 7,000 tonnes of virgin material and reducing carbon footprint by 7%. Early in 2011, Nampak also launched a redesigned version of its bottles, which reduced packaging weight by 15% and cut carbon levels by an additional 12%.

Elsewhere, 2009 saw LINPAC increase the percentage of recycled HDPE in its Rfresh polypropylene trays (which are used for packaging meat and fish) from 10% to 15%. Also worthy of mention is Sharpak, which was acquired by Groupe Guillin of France in 2010. The company was the UK's first plastic packaging manufacturer to supply PET fresh produce punnets made with 100% recycled materials, and also the first to launch polypropylene (PP) punnets and food trays made from post-consumer HDPE.

Within the food industry, Allied Bakeries has introduced 100% recycled packaging for its Kingsmill brand, using off-cuts from the bread bag manufacturing process. In 2009, retailer Marks and Spencer launched a range of prepared salads packaged in containers made from recycled plastic bottles, which represented an industry first.

Elsewhere, usage of recycled material is considerable in the glass and metal packaging industries, mainly because there are few associated performance or safety issues. In Europe, steel cans used for food and drinks packaging are typically made with a recycled material content of 56%, a figure which falls to 50% for aluminium cans. In the US, the average percentage of recycled material in steel cans rises to 65%. Recycling rates are also high for metal packaging – for example, almost two-thirds (65%) of steel cans are recycled in the UK. 

Similarly high recycling rates also exist within the glass packaging industry, where bottle-to-bottle recycling is generally recognised as the best way of eliminating glass from the waste stream. One of the major advantages of glass is the fact that it can be recycled endlessly without any apparent loss in quality, as a result of which recycling is well-established within the glass packaging industry. 

In 2009, the US-based Glass Packaging Institute found that up to 80% of the country's recovered glass containers were made into new glass bottles and jars. The previous year saw the Institute set the US glass packaging industry a goal of using at least 50% of all recycled glass and/or cullet in the manufacture of bottles and jars by 2013. If successful, this would eliminate almost 182,000 tonnes of waste from landfill sites. 

Within the EU, between 25 and 30bn glass bottles and jars are believed to be recycled every year, equivalent to a recycling rate of 65%. Almost 650,000 tonnes of glass is now made into new containers and jars in the UK alone – not only does this result in lower quantities of waste destined for landfill, but it also reduces energy consumption. In the UK, green glass typically contains up to 85% recycled material, although this figure drops to 25% for clear glass.