April 27, 2015 / Andrew Brown

Find the Market Fit for Recycled Content

When is it appropriate to use recycled content in a product or its packaging? Imagine a container designed for compost. Its chemical make-up requires that nothing impede its decomposition by microbes. Yet during its useful life, the package needs to protect a product. In a humid environment, the lack of preservatives could lead to mold growth or premature decomposition. If the packaging breaks and goods are lost or need to be cleaned up, the environmental impact could be negative.

“As producers of packaging, we are encouraged to think in terms of sustainability, but there’s a balance required and trade-offs to be assessed,” says Jon Hellerstein, senior lead, global product stewardship services for MeadWestvaco. “We want to have a discussion on what are the right decisions. They may not be really clear, depending on what your position is in the process.”

Hellerstein will co-lead that discussion during Product Stewardship & Sustainability: In Alignment or Conflict: Informed Decision Making & Insights, a session at Stewardship 2015. He and co-presenter Dr. Gavin Thompson of Environ will discuss what goes into the development and marketing of products containing recycled content. “Part of what we're going to talk about is how to define, establish and maybe constrain intended uses and a fit-for-purpose criteria to avoid risk,” says Hellerstein.

One consideration is odor. “Say R&D wants to make a ‘new’ extruded lumber product using recycled materials such as sludge and waste plastics. In going to market with that type of product, it’s prudent for a product steward to consider whether intended end use applications could result in large surface areas, where people are going to be in contact with it, like a deck on the back of your house. What if the lumber has an objectionable odor to it,” says Hellerstein.

That may prompt some testing under simulated heated conditions that could predict whether mal-odors would be an issue. This would guide informed decision-making about whether to pursue alternative uses that pose less risk. For example, “if it would be used for a different purpose, say a fence that surrounds something where there's little human or animal contact, so who cares if the product has some odor,” says Hellerstein.

What Hellerstein wants product stewards to appreciate is that customer expectations play an important role in product design. “One of the things that we’ll talk about is walking in the shoes of the end user and making sure the decisions made around during product design will assure suitability for intended uses, that end user's expectations will be met along with regulatory compliance expectations, and most importantly that the products perform as needed and don't create health, safety or environmental problems.”

Product stewards can help business managers and executives to make informed decisions about when and how to use recycled content in products placed on the market. To do that, they’ll need to collect relevant data about the composition, impurities and variability of raw materials proposed for use. “We'll also address the regulatory frameworks and requirements that would drive one to make informed decisions around how much testing is needed, how to assess exposures in the end use product, and how to implement controls that promote both safe and sustainable products,” says Hellerstein.

Andrew Brown

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