Design with Responsibly Sourced Materials

By making informed decisions when selecting a material and supplier, the package design team has an opportunity to address the impacts that occur during the extraction and refinement of raw materials, encourage best practices, and make meaningful improvements to the balance of sustainability attributes in the packaging system.

Material Selection

Every material has a unique set of properties that can be leveraged to create a more sustainable design, and no material should be considered to be inherently more sustainable than another material. It is also important to recognize that the benefits and impacts of any package are influenced by considerations beyond material type, such as the shape of the package, the weight of the package, and the components and additives needed for a specific design. Meaningful comparisons should only be made between specific package designs using an appropriate functional unit. Information about the manufacturing processes and functional performance benefits of any material are best used in the context of specific packaging system designs over entire life cycles.

Using post-consumer recycled content

The sustainability indicators of post-consumer recycled content (PCR) tend to differ considerably from virgin content. For some materials like aluminum and glass, PCR will improve environmental performance in nearly every impact category. For other materials like fiber and polymers, PCR tends to improve certain environmental indicators while introducing tradeoffs in other environmental indicators. PCR of any material type may introduce tradeoffs in areas such as cost, availability, and quality.

See how PCR changes manufacturing impacts for aluminum and HDPE

Adjust the percentage of PCR used in the materialdata for selected manufacturing impacts: COMPASS®


The type of steel used in packaging is manufactured in a process that always uses recycled content (both post-consumer and post-industrial) in the range of 25-37% (25% is most common in the US). Scrap steel is required to balance excess heat generated in the manufacturing process, and the design team is not likely to be able to control the amount of recycled content used.

Average PCR in steel packaging manufactured in the US: 25% Source: GreenBlue


Recycled content in aluminum packaging tends to be used in the manufacture of beverage can bodies and occasionally beverage can tops. Aluminum trays can be made using PCR, while thin foils tend to not incorporate any recycled content due to inconsistencies that might compromise performance characteristics. The use of PCR in aluminum packaging tends to lower environmental impacts in nearly every impact category.

Average PCR in aluminum packaging manufactured in the US: 30%Source: GreenBlue


Post consumer recycled glass is commonly used in the manufacture of new glass containers. There are few technical limitations to the amount of PCR that may be used in the manufacture of glass containers, but the choice of color and the availability of recycled content may affect your supplier’s ability to use PCR. The use of PCR in glass containers tends to lower environmental impacts in nearly every impact category.

Average PCR in glass packaging manufactured in the US: 27%Source: GreenBlue


Post consumer recycled fiber may be used is many applications, and is commonly used in significant amounts in corrugated containers and boxboard cartons. It can be challenging to use PCR in pharmaceutical packaging, direct food contact packaging, and packaging applications with high standards of visual aesthetics, but opportunities exist. The use of PCR in fiber packaging tends to lower impacts such as water consumption and mineral consumption, but in some instances it may raise impacts in areas such as aquatic toxicity and fossil fuel consumption.

Average PCR in fiber packaging manufactured in the US: 41%
Source: GreenBlue


Considerable amounts of PCR may be used in some PET and HDPE packages, with the best opportunities for applications without direct food or drug contact. In addition to regulatory compliance, strength and barrier properties can often pose challenges to the use of PCR. Manufacturing with PCR tends to reduce impacts such as fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions while raising impacts such as water consumption and unwanted water emissions. Suitable feedstocks rarely exist for using PCR in other resins.

Average PCR in PET packaging manufactured in the US: 13%

Average PCR in HDPE packaging manufactured in the US: 2%

Other polymers manufactured in the US do not use any significant amount of recycled content
Source: GreenBlue

Using pre-consumer recycled content

Using materials that incorporate pre-consumer recycled content is a method of reducing waste from conversion operations and encouraging best practices in material manufacturing.

Keep in mind:

  • It is rare to find life cycle data that can be used to quantitatively distinguish the environmental indicators of post-industrial recycled content from the environmental indicators of virgin content.
  • Outside of cost and availability, there are virtually no unwanted trade-offs introduced by using pre-consumer recycled content in glass, aluminum, or steel, while pre-consumer recycled fibers and polymers may introduce trade-offs in strength and consistency.

Questions to ask:

  • Will an increased amount of fiber or polymer be required to balance performance needs in strength and durability?
  • From where does the pre-consumer recycled content originate? Does the distance it travels back to the manufacturing facility introduce considerations related to the impacts incurred during transportation?

Using certified fiber

Using fiber from sources recognized for their use of responsible management practices is a strategy to ensure that the productivity of natural systems is maintained and best practices are used to minimize unwanted emissions to soil, air, and water.

Keep in mind:

  • Life cycle data does not currently exist that can be used to quantitatively compare the environmental indicators of certified fiber vs. non-certified fiber.
  • Demand for certified fiber tends to exceed the supply, so it is not possible to use certified fiber in every application
  • Different certification programs use different criteria to certify forests.

Questions to ask:

  • How does certified virgin fiber relate to recycled fiber in meeting my sustainability objectives?
  • Does my supplier have a stable source of certified fiber that will meet my needs?
  • Does using certified fiber introduce a tradeoff in the distance travelled?
  • What tradeoffs are introduced in cost?

Addressing material health

Material health is the idea that materials should not harm the health of humans or ecosystems at any point during their life cycle. Material health is a complex subject, and little consensus exists on the best methods of evaluating material health.

Central to the subject are the concepts of hazard and risk: a hazardous substance is one that has the potential to cause harm – for instance, vinyl chloride, which is a precursor in the manufacturing of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), is a hazardous substance because it is a known human carcinogen. Risk is a measure of the probability that the hazardous substance will actually cause harm – for instance, the risk associated with vinyl chloride depends on the probability of exposure during the manufacturing process.

Keep in mind:

  • Material health refers to the packaging material itself as well as all inputs to its manufacturing process and any substances emitted over its life cycle.
  • A risk-minimizing approach or a hazard-minimizing approach may be used to address material health concerns. There is no consensus on which approach is best.
  • To understand the material health profile of a material one must understand what might happen to the material in various stages of its life cycle – including transportation, use, and end-of-life.
  • The best material health guidelines are those that seek to exceed regulatory compliance.

Questions to ask:

  • What is the likelihood that the material will be exposed to light, heat, electromagnetic waves, or mechanical shock over its life cycle? Will this transform the chemical substances in the material?
  • What ancillary treatments will be used on the package? Is there concern over any of the inks, coatings, adhesives, and additives?
  • What substances will be generated if the material is incinerated at its end-of-life?
  • What happens if the package becomes marine debris at its end-of-life?
  • If a material is undesirable, what are the comparable characteristics of the available alternatives?
Useful Measurements:
  • number of substances of concern identified
  • number of alternative substances assessed
  • GPPS attribute: asessment and minimization of substances hazardous to the environment
Learn more:

Selecting a supplier

In addition to evaluating material options, the design team can benefit from establishing relationships with responsible material suppliers. Regardless of material, a well-chosen supplier can offer many opportunities to reduce social and environmental impacts and encourage responsible practices.

Keep in mind:

  • Portions of impacts are incurred during transportation of materials. The mode of transportation and the distances traveled will have a considerable effect, and both vary by supplier.
  • The best suppliers are those that have implemented systems of continuous improvement and set goals to exceed regulatory compliance.

Questions to ask:

  • From where does the supplier source their raw materials? Are there specific ecosystem sensitivities I should be aware of?
  • What are the distances traveled by the material? What tradeoffs are introduced by selecting a supplier in a closer location?
  • Does my supplier issue a corporate sustainability report? Does it follow accepted standards for reporting and are its contents verified by a third party?
  • Has my supplier implemented an environmental management system such as following ISO 14001?
Useful Measurements:
  • distance traveled from supplier
  • number of suppliers with environmental management systems
  • GPPS attribute: production sites located in areas with condititions of water stress or scarcity
  • GPPS attribute: material waste
Learn more: