To mark this year’s EU Green Week, Pro Carton – in association with Packaging Europe – hosted an industry roundtable discussion, which brought together industry experts from different stages of the supply chain. The discussion revolved around how the EU Green Deal would impact the packaging industry and the role of fibre-based packaging in achieving circularity.
Sharing their insights were Tiina Pursula, SVP Sustainability, Division Packaging Materials at Stora Enso, Monika Romenska, Regulatory & Public Affairs Manager at EXPRA, Klaus Hockl, Founder and Managing Director of Cardbox Packaging Group, and Winfried Mühling, General Manager at Pro Carton, and it was hosted by Packaging Europe’s Elisabeth Skoda.
Challenges and opportunities
The European Green Deal sets out key guidelines to ensure all packaging in the EU market is reusable or recyclable in an economically viable manner by 2030. Of course, there are some challenges and hurdles facing the industry on the way to achieving this goal.
One key factor here is getting the collection right. All speakers agreed that it was vitally important to have a separate collection of different types of packaging and to further develop collection systems on a local, regional and national level.
Tiina Pursula pointed out that recyclability needs to be clearly defined, and that the industry needs to then work on designing for recyclability according to this definition.
Monika Romenska highlighted the importance of considering the big picture and taking the environmental and CO2 impact into account.
“We should make sure that both the product and the packaging are considered in this. If the packaging is not functional, the product deteriorates. It is very important to have a holistic approach and really to coordinate all the different policies.”
She also emphasised the importance of regulatory guidance.
“Not all EU member states have implemented the current Waste Directive yet. It’s of key importance that the European Commission follows up on how different Member States are implementing the legislation and provides clear guidance or implementing acts that will focus the efforts of all countries in one direction.”
All speakers agreed that the Green Deal also creates plentiful opportunities, with Tiina Pursula saying that it can serve as a catalyst for innovation and improves an already well-functioning fibre recycling system.
“The industry has already set itself even more ambitious targets, for example, the 4evergreen alliance already has in place a 90% recycling target for fibre-based packaging by 2030.”
Monika Romenska pointed out the fact that the Green Deal has promoted innovations in digitalisation.
“Initiatives such as Holy Grail 2.0 test the possibility of better sorting through digital watermarking. As another example, Malta is using the Internet of Things for emptying and sorting containers.”
Klaus Hockl observed that the Green Deal has boosted the innovation of new developments of fibre systems, coatings and more sustainable packaging solutions.
“It has also had a strong impact on the development of new collection system, which is crucial for the success of the Green Deal.”
The discussion then moved on to what is needed for the packaging industry to implement the Green Deal guidelines. Tiina Pursula stated that a good place to start was the products and their end uses.
“Packaging is there to protect the product. We need to consider all the challenges a pack will have to handle. Therefore, the rules must be practical. Considering this complexity, it’s important that the industry is involved, so there’s the best understanding of the actual technical requirements for any packaging to be recyclable.”
Klaus Hockl also advocated a holistic view.
“It’s important for the industry’s credibility to bring packaging to the market that is best suited for its purpose. This means that not every application, every packaging necessarily has to be fibre based. I’m convinced that our colleagues from the plastics industry also have great applications. Acknowledging this will help us to support our credibility and to be successful with our fibre-based solutions.”
Facilitating recycling for the consumer
Waste collection varies quite a lot within EU countries, and even within regions. What were our panellists’ thoughts on tackling this challenge?
In May, the EU Commission presented details of its Packaging Waste Regulation, which aims to introduce a harmonised solution. According to Monika Romenska, this is a very ambitious target as it’s difficult to collect packaging in the same way in different countries.
“What could be done to make life easier for consumers would be the harmonisation of labelling. Once it’s clear where and how to recycle, you receive more high-quality material.”
While also suggesting that it might not be realistic, Winfried Muehling confirmed that a harmonised solution would be desirable – “even just being able to separate fibre-based packaging from other waste would be a fundamental benefit.”
Tiina Pursula underlines the importance of simplicity to make it easier for the consumer to recycle.
“Keep it simple, keep it local and focus on the impact. In order to make the separate collection work, it needs to be easy for the consumers to understand. Conveying the right information to consumers is key.”
Monika Romenska agrees that the consumer has an important role to play.
“We have to motivate the consumer. They should be able to benefit from a convenient infrastructure, the necessary information and the reassurance that their efforts are contributing to reducing their environmental impact.”
Recyclable over 25 times
Research has shown that fibres in fibre-based packaging can be reused over 25 times, a finding that certainly has given a further boost to the packaging material.
“This is a very important message, highlighting the importance of making fibre materials as clean as possible for the recycling process. Consumer studies show that a majority look at the sustainability impact their purchases will make. With packaging being the first touchpoint for consumers at the point of sale, it is a critical moment for deciding whether or not to buy a product,” said Winfried Mühling.
“These studies show that fibre-based packaging is seen positively due to its recyclability. This hopefully means that brands and consumers see that fibres are really a highly recyclable material,” he adds.
Klaus Hockl also observed high interest from brands and consumers when it comes to substituting plastic with cartonboard.
“We have seen a strong interest in our products, such as our cardboard spoon used in yoghurt cups. Coatings also attract a lot of interest. Our goal is to go further and to substitute even more applications that were previously made from plastics.”
Tiina Pursula highlighted the importance of functional barrier materials in this area.
“We are working on materials that are lighter and require less coating so they fit into the major recycling streams. You have to balance shelf-life requirements and functional requirements. If it’s possible to reduce shelf life a bit, then it’s possible to have a simpler structure that’s easier to recycle.”
She highlighted the fact that collection and sorting guidelines vary, and pointed out that some recycling processes that can also handle barrier coatings.
“We need system-level thinking as barrier coated packaging can be well recycled in systems we already have at scale in Europe. We just need to make sure that the collection and sorting system handles the products properly.”
Monika Romenska pointed out that correct marking and communication are important to avoid losing out on valuable recyclate and not make the mistake of throwing a paper-based coffee cup with a thin layer of plastics away with normal rubbish.
All the panellists agreed – once it’s in the rubbish, it’s not being collected and lost as a raw material.
Focus on collaboration
Tackling the world’s sustainability challenges can only be achieved through collaboration across the value chain, and brands have an important role to play in this.
“Brand owners are the consumer interface. Consumers would like to see more easily understandable information on how they can play their role, and brands can help provide that information. It takes the involvement of all stakeholders in the value chain to really meet the challenges that are in front of us,” concluded Winfried Mühling.
“It is not possible to solve today’s problems by yourself. Discussing these challenges openly and defining the best solutions is what the industry and the environment both need – and I am sure that the fibre-based packaging industry will play its part in solving the challenges that lie ahead of us.”
Watch the full panel discussion here: