Statistics suggest that three billion trees are used in the production of paper packaging every year across the world. Juan F. Samaniego, freelance science journalist and editor for environmental newsletter Planeta Mauna Loa, takes us through manufacturers’ attempts to overcome these figures by producing paper from grass, hemp fibres, and recycled clothing.

In the small town of Heelsum, in the east of The Netherlands, paper has been produced since at least 1618, when the first small factory of Schut Papier was founded. Nowadays, the company focuses on high-quality specialty papers, and has been developing new approaches towards more sustainable materials.

As a partner of the GO GRASS project, Schut Papier has been exploring ways to extract cellulose fibres from roadside and natural grass. The European project aims to develop small-scale, bio-based solutions to unlock the potential of grassland across Europe.

“Currently, almost all paper is produced from either virgin wood-based cellulose or recycled paper,” explains Réka Szigeti, director of technology and development at Schut Papier. “We aim to source our raw materials locally, thus eliminating the need to import cellulose. We aim to do this by sourcing cellulose from grass, which is abundantly available here in The Netherlands.”

The final goal is reducing the industry’s environmental impact. “By using grass or agricultural waste fibres, we reduce the need for cutting down trees, which can help preserve natural habitats,” she adds. “The benefits of using these alternative materials also include lower transport emissions, increasing energy efficiency, and decreasing reliance on traditional pulp sources. They also align with the principles of a circular economy, where materials are reused and recycled, contributing to a more sustainable future.”

Not too far from Heelsum, in the German city of Hennef, another company is taking a similar approach to develop paper and cardboard from grass. Creapaper, which is not involved in the GO GRASS project, sees grass as a globally available resource that grows very fast and it’s locally available across Europe – a resource that can also contribute to mitigating climate change.

According to the company, their grass-based packaging products save 23% of CO2 emissions compared to conventional wood-based paper, and 15% of CO2 emissions compared to conventional recycled paper.

From old jeans to hemp-based bioplastic

Further east, in Poland, the Institute of Natural Fibres and Medicinal Plants (IWNiRZ) has been taking a very different approach. Over the last decade, it has been studying the potential industrial uses of hemp, from building materials to fabric.

As researchers of the IWNiRZ discussed in a recent paper, one of the applications of hemp that is drawing more attention lately is the use of raw hemp to produce bioplastics, as well as the development of hemp-based cardboard for packaging.

IWNiRZ is part of the INN PRESSME project, through which 27 partners from nine European countries are supporting companies to develop bio-based solutions in the packaging, energy, transport, and consumer goods sectors. Within the same project, the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland is also developing bio-based boxes replacing the current material with bio-foam and bio-based tubes for cosmetics, among other products.

In the Netherlands, Schut Papier’s trajectory shows there is no single approach to more sustainable packaging. In the last decade, the company has used a variety of agricultural residues such as tomato plants, onions, tulip bulbs and cocoa shells, flower residues, or even seaweed, to produce quality papers. It has even been made from recycled jeans.

“We are committed to a sustainable and circular future,” adds Réka Szigeti. “Our plans include further research and development to improve the efficiency of using grass and other sustainable fibres in paper production. Additionally, we are exploring ways to educate and raise awareness about the benefits of these alternatives and achieve positive impacts in three key areas: environmental, economic, and social.”

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