Digital Magazine

Recovered materials content guidelines for packaging change.

On March 15th of this year, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published a draft guidance document known as a Recovered Materials Advisory Notice (RMAN) for Paper Products. This RMAN will effectively create new procurement guidelines for federal agencies by recommending recovered materials content specifications for paperboard and packaging products.

These recommendations affect a wide variety of packaging products, including fiber boxes, folding cartons, padded mailers, wrapping paper and bags. Once they go into effect (around December 1996), any company supplying such products to an affected agency will need to certify that it meets or exceeds that agency's recovered materials content standard.

The RMAN is a product of Section 6002(e) of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and Executive Order 12873, which require EPA to issue a Comprehensive Procurement Guideline.

The goal of the Guideline is twofold: (1) to increase the general availability of recovered materials products, and (2) to expand the federal government's use of recovered materials products by identifying frequently purchased items manufactured with recovered materials.

A series of guidance documents (e.g., the Paper Products RMAN) specify recommended percentage ranges of recovered materials content for each type of product designated by the Guideline.

Technically, the RMAN content recommendations serve only as guidelines. Agencies are free to set their procurement standards by developing their own content recommendations, so long as they take into account product availability, price and other pertinent factors. In practice, however, few agencies have either the time or the inclination to do so, and most simply adopt EPA's RMAN recommendations as their procurement standards.

In addition to federal agencies, these RMAN recommendations apply to state agencies using federal funding and to contractors paid with these funds. Many state agencies and private-sector purchasers choose to base purchasing decisions on these recommendations.

Finally, it is important to note that the RMAN recommendations do have a dollar threshold: They apply only to transactions that total $10,000 or more in one year and involve a particular product.

The recovered "material" in question for paper products is fiber, which can be derived from wood, textile or agricultural products. EPA has defined "recovered materials" to include both preconsumer (prior to its intended end use) and postconsumer (after its intended end use) materials.

For most products the Paper Products RMAN recommends two recovered materials content ranges: one for "recovered fiber" as a whole (both preconsumer and postconsumer fiber); and one pertaining solely to the "postconsumer fiber" portion of the product. It includes the recommended recovered materials content percentages indicated on the chart.

EPA expects to finalize the recommendations in the Paper Products RMAN by December of 1995. Agencies will then have one year to set procurement standards based on these recommendations.

Soon after publishing the March 15th Paper Products RMAN, EPA published another RMAN in conjunction with the Guideline. It set final recommended recovered materials content ranges for 19 additional products, one of which is plastic bags. The recommended recovered materials content for this product is 10%-100% postconsumer materials. The effective date of this recommendation is May 1, 1996, at which time agency procurement standards must begin to reflect this new recovered materials content recommendation.

The long lead time (approximately one and a half years) for the Paper Products RMAN provides companies with ample opportunity to assess their position vis-a-vis these new recommendations.

Companies with products that are already high in recovered and post-consumer content may find themselves with a distinct advantage. Section 6002(e) and the Executive Order express a clear preference for products with the highest recovered materials content "practicable," taking into account availability, cost and performance.

Companies whose products have relatively low percentages of recovered materials will have time to increase these figures or, alternatively, promote their products to affected agencies on the basis of their other qualities, e.g., superior performance and/or affordability.

Malcolm D. MacArthur is legal counsel to the Flexible Packaging Association, other trade groups and corporations.

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