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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
From Seed to Recycling Center:
How Companies Can Enable a Circular Economy at Every Step

While not every company is equipped or positioned to follow its products through their entire lifecycle, there are a few ways companies can think about participating at individual or multiple points in the circular cycle.

Recycling is complicated. Whether or not a product sees new life as a recycled version of itself is dependent upon numerous factors at each point in a multi-step process, frequently requiring cooperation from multiple stakeholders. Although it’s easy to feel like only a piece of the puzzle, there are many ways in which companies can help increase the odds that their products are successfully recycled.

Circularity has been a pillar of WestRock’s business for decades. As a paper and packaging solutions company, we understand that our role doesn’t have to end with delivering products to customers. Since the 1980s, we have operated recycling facilities across the US, recovering the very material we create. We own and operate 18 recycling facilities that are essential to our ability to manage more than 7.5 million tons of recyclables annually. The majority of this recycled material is used in our recycle paper mills, making us one of the largest integrated recyclers in the US. This caliber of infrastructure forms a footprint to both collect and consume recycled fiber, helping our customers give the recycled fiber used in our packaging products two, three ... often more than eight lives!

While not every company is equipped or positioned to follow their product through its entire lifecycle, there are strategies that companies can apply to directly contribute to a circular economy at individual steps along the cycle.

Consider the makeup of your packaging.

Product packaging is a natural place for companies to reduce waste because of the many sustainable options available on the market. Because recycling guidelines vary between cities, one way to increase the sustainability of your packaging is to consider fiber-based packaging — which has a significantly higher recycling rate than plastic. Of the material processed in WestRock’s recycling plants, 90 percent is fiber that is returned to our paper mills — ensuring it is made into ‘new’ recycled fiber packaging to continue its useful life.

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While it’s encouraging that the world is becoming more aware of the importance of using recycled materials, there is still a gap in education about why virgin fiber is a requirement for recycled fiber. Every time fiber is recycled, the individual strands of fiber get broken down further, which weakens the quality and strength of the material. Virgin fiber can typically be recycled 5-7 times. Without the infusion of stronger virgin fiber into the paper manufacturing process, research has shown that the recycled paper cycle would end in fewer than 14 months.

Virgin fiber is produced from trees; so, how do we ensure our entire operations cycle is circular? We take a hands-on approach with forests in regions where we source our virgin fiber to ensure they remain sustainable for generations to come. Crucial to forest sustainability are land-management plans designed to keep landscapes forest positive, meaning that more trees are planted than harvested in a procurement basin. Healthy and sustainably managed forests directly contribute to wildlife diversity, enhanced water quality and carbon sequestration.

Once it gets to your consumer, help them recycle it properly.

There is still room for improvement when it comes to consumer education about recycling. Companies who ship directly to consumers can contribute to recycling education through printed instructions on the package itself, or QR codes that scan to explanatory pages. Foodservice distribution company Performance Food Group, for example, uses WestRock’s “Scan.Learn.Recycle.QR code on its packaging to make it easy for consumers to find and learn more about their local recycling program.

Proper recycling habits are crucial for the future of recycling so that sorting is more efficient and a higher percentage of recycled products make it to the correct destination. This is an innovation focus area for WestRock. Through 2022, we’ve invested more than $7 million into recycling technology primarily intended to improve capture rates — ultimately improving the quality of recycled material headed to our paper mills and reducing the volume of material that goes to landfills.

Robotics and optical sorting are two areas we have invested in that have helped us better identify non-paper-based commodities and separate them out of the fiber stream. So far, we’ve seen a 5-7 percent improvement in fiber quality as a result.

A critical step to increasing recycling rates is improved consumer education about proper recycling practices. This step goes a long way in complementing our continued investments in recycling technologies.

Help paper-based materials make it back into the stream.

Households aside, another important collection point is at commercial endpoints. Companies that are final destinations for paper-based materials should think about how to best facilitate recycling pick-ups.

For example, in 2020, General Motors expressed a desire to create a closed-loop system between its processing centers and its approved packaging supplier. As a result, WestRock began to work with GM as both a supplier and a recycling partner — providing the auto company with fiber-based products consistent in color and size, and collecting nearly 17,000 tons of GM cardboard per year. This material then heads back to WestRock’s paper mills for a new life, helping General Motors work toward its goal of “zero waste by 2030.”

Whenever possible, we encourage this type of collaboration, so we can help our customers achieve their sustainability goals.

Partnering together for future generations.

Our ability to directly influence a circular economy at every step is one of the reasons I love my work here at WestRock. We’re passing on sustainable products for generations to come, which makes us an adaptable solutions provider in all areas for our customers.

But I also know not every company is positioned this way. My hope is that corporations begin to think about how and where they can make an impact, perhaps at one of the above-mentioned steps, so that we can work together as an industry to achieve a circular economy.