An exclusive Q&A with the newly appointed president of Pro Carton and head of marketing at Mayr-Melnhof Karton. Horst Bittermann talks about the potential for cartonboard packaging as advancements in barrier technology open up new possibilities, boosting recycling rates, e-commerce and his future plans for Pro Carton.

What opportunities do you see for carton in view of the current plastics packaging debate?

The cartonboard and folding carton industry has a significant opportunity in light of the current packaging waste debate, as I am convinced that cartonboard is the most natural and sustainable packaging material available on the market. It is renewable, biodegradable and recyclable and can contribute to a truly functioning circular economy.

The industry has already begun to see significant gains and a growing market share, with Pro Carton members reporting an increased demand from FMCG brand owners as they recognise the importance of environmentally-friendly packaging to move us from a linear economy to a circular economy. The growth to date has been relatively smooth, driven by the general GDP development in our main markets, an evolution in trading and online business and social changes which has led to steady growth. Now, it is time for the industry to act on the bigger opportunity presented by the current climate.  We need to use this opportunity to raise awareness of the sustainable benefits of cartonboard, the ‘natural choice of packaging’, which is a real selling point for brands, and the growing number of environmentally-conscious consumers.

Where can cartons replace plastics, and what are the material’s limitations?

Have there been any recent innovations in barrier properties, for example?The carton industry is already hard at work investing in and developing substitutes for plastics – such as barrier coating technologies that are recyclable and biodegradable. We’ve already seen some significant developments of cartonboard producers and converters. For example, cartonboard with functional barriers against unintended substances such as mineral oils, or new designs by converters to create plastic alternatives. Further work is needed to continue to innovate and develop additional functional barriers that are, for example, grease or water resistant; or have moisture and oxygen barriers that can also be heat sealed. These barriers, must compete with other materials, be fully recyclable and not cause harm to the environment or the functioning circular economy. Many of Pro Carton’s members are already in detailed discussions with brand owners and retailers to understand the packaging requirements for their products and develop new packaging concepts that fulfil these needs.

What is your opinion on carton recycling rates across Europe? What could be done to further improve them?

Many countries across Europe already have excellent collection schemes in place, and the recovery and recycling of paper and board meets the EU target for recycling 75% of packaging waste by 2030, with 82% of paper and cardboard packaging already being sent for recycling .

To further improve recycling rates, it is key for the industry to help local authorities by sharing best practice.  We also need to review current recycling infrastructure and encourage separation during collection to improve recycling rates and the efficiency of the wider recycling process. There are many countries in central Europe where paper is separated from corrugated cardboard, as well as aseptic cartons. For example, in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, more than 100 million European consumers use separate bins for each material and are educated on what can be recycled. This is particularly difficult for the plastics industry, where there is a lot of confusion among consumers as to what can and can’t be recycled.

What innovations have you observed in the carton industry in recent years that have particularly impressed you?

The most impressive feature of cartonboard is its ability to fulfil the major criteria for packaging materials – to preserve the quality of the product, promote the sale of the product and protect the environment. 

Cartonboard is an eye-catching packaging material, it doesn’t leave any scars on the environment and it effectively protects the product. We need to ensure cartonboard is the protective packaging solution of choice for almost all applications. With more investment in research and development into functional barrier solutions and clever designs, I am certain that cartonboard will swiftly become the number one choice of packaging, from food to pharma.

It is worth noting that cartonboard also offers significant sustainability benefits during production and recycling. Cartonboard mills have been set up to be ecological and sustainable – utilising all materials and minimising waste throughout the production process, while minimising damage on the environment. The paper and board industry is currently the largest producer and user of biomass energy, and it almost completely offsets its emissions by the number of trees it plants. The same can be said for the recycling process, where recovered fibres are used to make cartonboard or another paper or board product. Up to 90% of the fibres are recovered and reused, while the remaining 10% can be diverted for use in other industries, such as the construction industry. Here, fibres are used as a main component for long-lasting building materials, providing a range of benefits including protection against extreme temperatures. Alternatively, they can be composted, a process known as “organic recycling”, or if recycling is no longer a viable option, their energy content can be recovered in an energy-from-waste incinerator.

Do you see carton getting a boost thanks to the continuous growth of online retail?

Online retail in Europe has grown exponentially and as a result, we expect to see simultaneous growth within the cartonboard and folding carton industry. A key factor as brands look to ship more products than stock them on shop shelves, is to consider how to best protect the product. Cartonboard is rigid and can protect the product without the risk of damage or breakage.

What are your plans for Pro Carton in the coming months and years?

Now, more than ever, is the time for us to intensify our communications and promote the fantastic materials Pro Carton members create. As I begin my tenure as President of the association, I will be looking to our members and wider marketing campaign to target brand owners, retailers as well as end consumers to educate them on the benefits of cartonboard as the natural, sustainable packaging solution. I am certain that cartonboard and folding cartons will become the most widely-used packaging medium in the coming decade and that Pro Carton can play an important role in achieving that success. It has the ability to preserve the quality of the product, promote the sale of the product and preserve the environment – for our generation and future generations to come.