As fibre-based materials innovate to increasingly compete in packaging niches recently dominates by plastics, brand owners face new challenges in evaluating respective sustainability implications. Tim Sykes spoke to Smurfit Kappa’s Arco Berkenbosch (VP innovation and development) and Jurgita Girzadiene (sustainability manager) about novel corrugated applications, a new approach to lifecycle analysis, and carbon footprints.

At Packaging Europe we’re pushing the climate crisis to the top of the sustainability agenda – and many of the most fundamental and contentious questions the packaging world must face lie at the intersection of carbon footprint and circularity. While the plastics value chain works on design for recyclability and building a viable circular economy, the paper industry is exploring opportunities to provide already recyclable alternatives to plastic packaging applications. Indeed, recent research has estimated that in European supermarkets 1.5 million tonnes of plastic could be replaced annually. As paper and plastics come to compete across more packaging contexts, brand owners will have decisions to make. As plastics raise their recyclability and paper innovates around functionality, how do brand owners assess the relative sustainability credentials?

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Smurfit Kappa also acknowledges certain caveats apply to these calculations. While it uses its own real life data, based on a specific mill for corrugated, the LCA relies on third party data that may be more generalised for plastic products. It does not, for instance, attempt to compare the average distances plastic and corrugated products may travel through the entirety of their supply chains. On the other hand, it also doesn’t factor in the carbon storage function of trees – otherwise the carbon footprint of corrugated would come out below zero.

“We will continue to work on our data and assumptions,” Arco Berkenbosch commented. “However, we have found that this is a useful tool to steer conversations with customers facing those strategic sustainability dilemmas. The goal is to help them to make a sensible business decision based on the entirety of the information.”