American Forest & Paper Association Design Guidance for Recyclability: “A Resource for Paper-Based Packaging Designers”

By Terry Webber, vice president, industry affairs, AF&PA

The Design Guidance for Recyclability was developed as technical guidance to aid packaging designers and brands in the design and manufacture of packaging to help meet recyclability goals.

The Design Guidance is the culmination of work by the American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA), its members and partners in the paper-based packaging manufacturing industry:

  • Fibre Box Association, which represents North American corrugated packaging manufacturers
  • Paperboard Packaging Council, which serves paperboard box makers and suppliers
  • Recycled Paperboard Technical Association, which provides technical assistance to improve the recycled paperboard industry

AF&PA also appreciates the input received from the Foil and Specialty Effects Association on recent research on the recyclability of paper-based packaging with foil treatments, and from packaging designers from six consumer brands companies who reviewed the draft report with AF&PA and provided feedback on its content and readability.

The findings in the report are the result of an AF&PA member survey of company mills in a range of sectors in the United States and Canada. The survey had a 75% response rate. In total, data for 86 mills was reported. The 86 mills represent 74% of the total amount of recovered fiber grades that AF&PA members consume that are likely to include the types of recycled paper-based packaging found in the scope of the Design Guidance project.

What purpose does it serve?

The objective of the Design Guidance is to present research-based findings on how various non-fiber elements affect the recyclability of paper-based packaging. It is intended to inform individuals and groups that specify and design packaging and make determinations about the recyclability of paper-based packaging.

The Design Guidance is not meant to be mandatory or a standard for the packaging industry.

Packaging designers want to make their packaging more sustainable. AF&PA’s Design Guidance is a tool for designers to use when they are making decisions about packaging performance, appearance and recyclability.

Who is AF&PA’s Design Guidance for?

The Design Guidance presents technical guidance for members of the paper-based packaging manufacturing supply chain to use, if desired, in designing and manufacturing packaging to meet customers’ needs in terms of recyclability.

Scope of AF&PA’s Design Guidance for Recyclability

The Design Guidance focuses on seven common types of recyclable paper-based packaging – corrugated, bleached and recycled paperboard; carrier stock cartons (soda and beer multipacks); kraft paper bags; multiwall shipping sacks and molded fiber containers.

It also identifies the kinds of non-fiber elements often attached to those types of packaging – adhesives, inks and dyes, coatings and barriers, decorative foils, tapes and more.

Segments of AF&PA’s Design Guidance for Recyclability

The Design Guidance final report was produced in an interactive PDF format, which allows easy navigation between sections. The links in line items in the Table of Contents will take readers to that section in the report. The segments in the report are:

  • Description of how paper recycling works in paper mills
  • Ease of Recyclability – a high-level matrix that identifies which non-fiber elements are more easily recycled or may present a recycling “challenge” on each type of paper-based packaging covered in the report
  • Individual pages that provide a deeper dive into how different non-fiber elements affect recyclability for each type of paper-based packaging in the report
  • Appendices that provide more detailed information on a number of topics

Recycling “challenges” slow a mill’s pulping process

AF&PA’s Design Guidance identifies non-fiber elements that may become recycling “challenges.” The Design Guidance notes that something becomes a challenge when it slows down a mill’s pulping process, plugs screening systems or leaves residue on finished paper or paperboard.

The ease of recyclability of any type of paper-based packaging with non-fiber elements depends on an individual mill’s capability. Being a “challenge” does not make something not recyclable. It is important to note that each non-fiber element applied to each kind of packaging described in the Design Guidance was rated by some mills as not a “challenge” or more easily recycled.

One question that often is asked is, “How much is too much?” At what point does a non-fiber element become a “challenge” to recyclability? This guidance does not capture that. The answer to the question is highly dependent on each mill’s repulping capability and the product being made on the paper machine there.

Ease of recyclability

The legends in the ease of recyclability matrix (above) describe how each of the non-fiber elements affect the recyclability of each packaging type.

Green dots indicate that a packaging type with that non-fiber element is more “easily recycled” in mills. Gray dots indicate that a non-fiber element may create a “challenge” to recyclability for that type of packaging in mills. Hollow dots indicate that the non-fiber element typically is not present on that type of product.

To be categorized as a “challenge,” 33% or more of the mill survey respondents had to rate the non-fiber element as such on a particular type of packaging. This does not mean that the non-fiber element is not recyclable, but rather that it creates problems in some mills by slowing down the pulping process, clogging machines or leaving residue on finished paper or paperboard.

AF&PA explored several scenarios with the project working group and ultimately decided that the 33% threshold for being a “challenge” best reflects the mills’ recycling experience.

Recommendation by product type

The Design Guidance final report has a detailed product page for each type of packaging with four segments:

  • Description of the type of packaging
  • List of the non-fiber elements that are more easily recycled when they are on it
  • List of non-fiber elements that create recycling “challenges” on that type of packaging in paper mills
  • “Bottom Line” box that cites a key takeaway for each type of packaging

Notes at the bottom of the product pages remind readers that definitions of each of the non-fiber elements are in the appendix.

Additional information in the appendices

The Design Guidance has an appendix with six parts, which readers are urged to explore.

There they will find more detailed resource information:

  • Definition of recyclable
  • Definition of non-fiber elements
  • Insights on foils and wet strength resins
  • Recyclability standards and testing facilities
  • Endnotes with reference sources

Key insights from mills into recycling packaging with foil treatments

Improvements in recycling technology and the ability to use thinner foils have made foil treatments easier to recycle than they have been historically. A majority of mills reported that there is no meaningful difference between how the different kinds of foil treatments are managed.

An analysis of responses to the mill questionnaire that rated one or more of the foil treatments as easier to recycle showed the following:

  • The majority of mills in this group use predominantly recovered fiber for furnish (76 to 100%). Among them:
    • 55% rate “stamped foils” as easier to recycle
    • 60% rate “metalized foils” as easier to recycle
    • 56% rate “laminated foils” as easier to recycle
  • A sizeable minority of mills (26 to 50%) use less recovered fiber for furnish. Among them:
    • 32% rate “stamped foils” as easier to recycle
    • 25% rate “metalized foils” as easier to recycle
    • 26% rate “laminated foils” as easier to recycle
  • Products manufactured:
    • Nearly three-fourths of the mills manufacture containerboard
    • A minority (14%) manufacture uncoated recycled boxboard.
  • Pulping process:
    • The great majority (approximately 80%) of these mills utilize continuous-low consistency pulping.
    • Mills in this group utilized other pulping processes: 9% of mills reported utilizing batch, continuous-high consistency and/or drum pulping.
    • NOTE: Mills were able to select more than one response option for this question.
  • Observations about the different kinds of foil treatments:
    • Metal on poly is easier to deal with. It’s easier to get the poly off the board than metal and very thin metal will stick to the poly.
    • Stamped foil is not as severe [because] stamping tends to involve less foil.
    • Metalized coatings are more problematic than stamping.
    • Metalized films are very thin, and the plastic backing is difficult to separate.

The Design Guidance for Recyclability is available for free download:

The American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA) serves to advance US paper and wood products manufacturers through fact-based public policy and marketplace advocacy. The forest products industry is circular by nature. AF&PA member companies make essential products from renewable and recycled resources, generate renewable bioenergy and are committed to continuous improvement through the industry’s sustainability initiative Better Practices, Better Planet 2030: Sustainable Products for a Sustainable Future. Visit AF&PA online at or follow it on Twitter @ForestandPaper.