A Guide to Packaging Material Flows and Terminology

August 2015

Given that paper is a heavily used packaging material, understanding packaging material flows is an essential step to optimizing recovery potential for paper and fiber. The ability to recover and re-use material at the end of its useful life is critical to achieving more and paper use systems.

Of the 66.95 million tons of U.S. packaging produced in 2007, 39.94 million tons (57.1%) was made of paper. And, although 62% of paper packaging was recovered for recycling in 2007, almost half (48.1%) of the 37.7 million tons of paper discarded to a landfill or incineration was from a packaging origin. (U.S. EPA 2008b)1


This graphic below illustrates the material flow of paper throughout different stages of its life-cycle and in proportions relative to the different uses and fate of the paper packaging fiber.

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According to the Definition of Sustainable Packaging from GreenBlue’s Sustainable Packaging Coalition, one of the criteria to achieving sustainable packaging is that materials must be effectively recovered at the end of their useful life, and then re-used in industrial or biological cycles. To make this happen, it is critical to connect packaging design and manufacture with the available end-of-life recovery systems, creating a “closed loop” material system. Often, however, in the United States, the two ends of the packaging supply chain — the packaging designers and the recyclers — do not communicate effectively with each other, materials are sent to landfill, or otherwise wasted, and a closed-loop system is never realized.

One of the barriers to effective communication along the packaging supply chain is the lack of a common lexicon for packaging materials. The same material is often called by different terms during the design, manufacture, use, collection, and reprocessing phases of the package’s life cycle. This absence of commonly understood terminology hinders discussions along the supply chain. For example, it is confusing for municipal managers seeking to communicate to consumers which materials should be placed in their recycling bins, and recyclers are unable to communicate to packaging designers about why a package is not currently recyclable given the constraints of recycling infrastructure. A comprehensive list of packaging material types would help to close this communication gap and allow for more productive discussions along the supply chain.

To help solve this problem, the Guide to Packaging Material Flows and Terminology defines the major packaging materials and introduces the various terms and synonyms that are applied to the materials during the life cycle phases of production, use and collection, and reprocessing. The Guide also presents the current life cycle of each material in graphic form to demonstrate the flow of the packaging material from resource extraction to its eventual fate at end-of-life, highlighting the existing gaps standing in the way of an ideal closed-loop system.

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1. U.S. EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency). 2008b. “Municipal Solid Waste in the United States, 2007 Facts and Figures.” http://www.epa.gov/epawaste/nonhaz/mundicipal/msw99.htm (accessed 19 May 2009).