FEFCO, the association representing the European corrugated board industry, makes the sustainability argument for paper-based packaging.

The final episode of the award-winning television series The Blue Planet II shocked Europe. Naturalist Sir David Attenborough concluded his close look at the devastating impact of littering on marine life with a rallying cry to do more to protect the environment. The images have not only boosted desire for a wholly sustainable economy but also drawn attention to the first-ever Europe-wide strategy on plastics.

Adopted in January, the ‘EU Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy’ has set the target “By 2030, all plastics packaging placed on the EU market is either reusable or can be recycled in a cost-effective manner”. Commissioner Timmermans said Brussels’ priority was to clamp down on “single-use plastics that take five seconds to produce, five minutes to use and 500 years to break down again”.

Corrugated board stands out in the current discussion on waste management. While some other packaging materials are denounced as problematic and harmful to the environment, corrugated is the natural bio-based and biodegradable alternative to fossil-based products.

Corrugated paper is made from simple ingredients: paper and air along with glue made from wheat or maize. This means whenever corrugated paper packaging does end up in nature, it’s harmless rather than catastrophic. A corrugated box that ends up in the ocean will biodegrade within two months.

More generally, corrugated is hardly ever seen littered in nature. Any time it is, it’s a real shame because the European corrugated industry wants all fibres to be recycled again. Corrugated paper packaging is 100% recyclable, and fibres can be reused up to 25 times.

Paper & board packaging already achieves high rates of recycling. In 2016, 81.9% of all used paper-based material in Europe was recycled. While this is an amazing figure, we can do better. The new paper recycling targets set by the EU Commission (85% by 2030) will encourage industry to continue its efforts and further contribute to building the circular economy in Europe.

Corrugated paper packaging comprises 88% recycled content with the additional fresh fibres coming from sustainably managed forests. While corrugated packaging makes the best use of secondary raw materials, there is an increased need for a separate collection of paper and board – not only to ensure high-quality material for recycling but also because we want every fibre back.

Recyclable and biodegradable, the circular economy has always been business as usual for the corrugated industry. And with food waste another issue on consumers’ minds, corrugated paper packaging is also designed to provide great protection for the food it carries and reduce spoilage.

While the air between the paper sheets cushions delicate produce, corrugated cardboard naturally ensures fruits and vegetables stay fresh longer. A 2016 study by the University of Bologna showed corrugated board keeps fruits fresh up to three days longer by reducing contamination.

Corrugated paper packaging is extremely versatile. It can be made into any shape or size – anything from colourful boxes for safeguarding fast-moving consumer goods such as chocolates to trays for taking care of fragile fruit. It’s also the ideal material for other purposes too, including furniture, life-sized exhibition stands and even housing insulation.

The growth of consumer demand for sustainable and recyclable packaging is driving innovation. The corrugated and paper industries have found excellent alternatives to fossil-based products that are friendly for our world.

Consider the corrugated packaging that was specifically designed for bottled drinks purchased online: its innovative interior structure creates an air pocket capable of absorbing the impact of falls from up to a height of 140cm. If that wasn’t innovative enough, it’s easy to assemble, doesn’t need adhesives and includes a tamper-proof seal.

Corrugated sometimes even offers more features when it replaces traditional packaging materials. Take a six-pack of cans: corrugated not only provides a sturdy and ergonomic hold but also space for advertising and product labelling.

All in all, the European corrugated industry is sustainable by design, circular by nature, innovative and competitive. Corrugated paper is natural: it’s bio-based, biodegradable and recyclable. If Europe adopts corrugated and a truly circular economy, it can help build the sustainable economy that will protect all our futures.

And remember, we want every fibre back. Please sort, collect and recycle your packaging – it’s our precious raw material!