The challenge of providing packaging that balances resource efficiency with the lowest possible environmental impact is one that every member of the packaging industry is familiar with. There is no ‘perfect’ solution, but in this exclusive article Mondi Group looks at some of the strategies the industry could be employing to help turn the tide of climate change.

Last month’s alarming IPCC’s global climate change report – the first since 2013, found that human activity is damaging the climate ‘irreversibly’. We don’t need to look further than the recent devastating fires and floods across the globe to know that action needs to be taken now to address climate change and the importance of innovating for a circular economy.

So what can we do in the packaging sector to ensure we play our role to mitigate the environmental impact of packaging? Broadly, the value chain from manufacturers, to brand owners, and converters need to innovate and collaborate. Only then can we find the right answers and approach.

It’s complicated, though.

Mondi, a global leading packaging and paper company, shares its vision of sophisticated packaging strategies for a complex world.

Packaging isn’t perfect, but it serves an essential purpose

While we are all keen to provide the most sustainable packaging solutions, the resources used to produce and protect goods during transport are also a factor. In this very magazine Packaging Europe addresses the issue of its own deliveries.  According to the Packaging Europe team, its readers occasionally question the fact that this magazine is delivered in a plastic bag that isn’t recyclable everywhere it is sent. The issue is that there isn’t one alternative that satisfies every criterion better than the others: what’s best for weight and resource efficiency may not be the best for preventing damage or avoiding packaging waste, and vice-versa. It’s a work in progress - and now the subject of a dialogue between a brand and its audience.

This is the case for all manufacturers and packaging producers. How do we provide packaging that protects the product alongside having the lowest environmental impact?

Take a more holistic approach

Approaching packaging strategies and specifications in a nuanced and objective way that goes beyond what is the latest trend consumers are asking for requires taking a step back. Developing packaging that is sustainable by design means focusing on the purpose while optimizing the material, and even changing it completely if necessary. How companies identify these opportunities and work together along the value chain needs to be reconsidered. As innovations in paper, plastic, and hybrid solutions continue to develop, so does imagining new possibilities for paper and plastic applications.

To get to that perfect solution, we need to question everything. This means looking at all the solutions, production processes, materials, and specifications needed to protect the product. Mondi is leading the way, reimagining how paper and plastic can be a part of the solution.

Mondi’s Advantage StretchWrap shows what’s possible

An example of this is Advantage StretchWrap, a paper Mondi developed to stretch and resist punctures. First created to wrap around mattresses, Mondi realized the paper could be even thinner, which led the team to investigate what else it could be used for. They were able to envisage wrapping heavy pallets for transportation. Further R&D and the backwards integration in paper production meant that vision became a reality, and within two years of development, the paper could replace the current plastic industry standard for pallet wrapping and has the potential to replace a significant amount of plastic for specific applications.  The solution uses responsibly sourced natural fibres and is recyclable.

This demonstrates that by applying expertise and investing in development, in many cases, paper can do the job just as well as plastic. “If it takes time, research, and development to get there, then so be it, as we know our customers want more fit-for-purpose packaging that is sustainable by design,” says Thomas Kahl, EcoSolutions Manager at Mondi. New technological advancements mean paper and corrugated are delivering in areas where just a few years ago, the standard was lower. This approach aims to provide the most sustainable packaging solution, but recognizes that the material used in that packaging is, ultimately, secondary to its purpose.  Advantage StretchWrap is something that had not even been imagined to be possible in the past.

With this solution and others, producers need to take into account the whole life cycle of the packaging and ask the following questions. Does the end user know how to dispose of the packaging correctly? Is a sorting and recycling scheme available in that country? Is more paper used to pack something than plastic and is more energy (and therefore emissions) needed to produce it?

Asking all these questions is part of Mondi’s EcoSolutions approach, which involves working closely with its customers to examine everything about their packaging needs and product requirements from the outset – the contents, the logistics, the end user, the existing lines, the shelf life, and even the communication to the end user. The starting point is function, followed by sustainability goals, geographical regions, supply chains and legislation, then the available recycling infrastructure. Mondi believes that these are all relevant when it comes to identifying and developing the ‘most sustainable’ packaging solution. “Only by working collaboratively with our customers in this way can we objectively look for the best possible result,” adds Kahl.

One EcoSolutions success that Mondi has delivered was in collaboration with the retailer Tesco, where they managed to close the loop for Tesco’s shopping bags. Working together along the supply chain, Mondi now collects Tesco’s Central European corrugated waste and recycles it to produce the shopping bags that customers can buy in store. Mondi was able to identify how they could collect the waste, and recycle it for their EcoVantage paper grade, which is strong enough to carry groceries while also using recycled fibres. This required Tesco and Mondi to rethink their supply chains and be willing to try something new in order to come up with a truly circular solution.

Questioning all aspects, from the materials to the supply chain, will ultimately lead to the most sustainable option – which can take time. Kahl points out that, “By first ensuring that products are packaged according to their needs, and not the material, we can rethink how different products can be packaged. It should not be a box-ticking, quick-fix approach. With Advantage StretchWrap and closing the loop with Tesco, both solutions took us two years of parallel research and development in order to make them possible. Good solutions take time, and we need more of them across the board if we are collectively going to become sustainable as an industry.”

One material cannot always replace another

Mondi believes that paper should always be the first option as a replacement to plastic: it is lightweight compared to other alternative materials like glass or metal, renewable, easily recyclable, and compostable. While some products can be replaced by fibre alternatives – food trays for cheese, for example, which can save up to 70% of the material needed – it is also clear that sometimes only plastic will do, with its distinct advantages and functionality. That includes packaging to keep medical equipment sterile, and to keep food fresh. One example is Mondi’s new recyclable packaging for Bell Germany’s  ‘Abraham’ thinly sliced deli meat range that requires 37% less material and saves 35 tonnes of plastic per year. Created after two years of development, Mondi’s WalletPack operates as a folder, features a re-close function on the backside to prevent food spoilage, and the German institute cyclos-HTP has certified it as 93% recyclable. Sustainable solutions like this show that there is always a place to consider the choice between paper and plastic. 

The value of life cycle assessments

Given the complexities of material choice, Mondi advocates taking an empirical, data driven route. Research, test, and test again. Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) are effective and Mondi’s Advantage StretchWrap has been undergoing its assessments, the outcomes of which will go into future developments or changes to its production. Mondi also sees peer reviews as essential, as they help deliver reliable, objective, and trustworthy data. They remove unconscious bias and bring fresh eyes to the whole process – often raising new questions by focusing on the statistics, rather than the opinions or trends around a product and its uses. They are critical tools to remain objective and focus on the true benefits of each material, instead of relying on emotions, which invariably could come into play when a product has taken years to develop. However, LCAs do not take into account the whole picture: many do not consider end-of-life impacts of the materials being used. There, we have to look to the benefits of different materials during their end-of-life.  These facts can show that solutions, which may seem unsustainable, actually are less harmful to the environment. At this stage, it’s important to educate the consumer about the facts.

Premium appearances and sustainable foundations

Let’s now go to what the consumer thinks. From a consumer perspective, brown paper often appears to be kinder to the environment, but there are solutions that provide consumer brands with sustainable white alternatives so as not to compromise on their premium look and feel. This is where having the facts can win over emotions.  Mondi questioned how a white containerboard grade could become more sustainable and developed ProVantage Smartwhite. The outcome was an innovative solution with a recycled fibre bottom layer, which is suitable for drink, certain food, and retail applications, as well eCommerce. Crafted with a fresh fibre top layer for a superior appearance it makes an excellent option for printing among uncoated containerboard grades. This development required a team effort in order to develop and communicate a sustainable solution that is not only attractive to brand owners but also innovative in its proposition.

As Kahl says: “We are not on this journey alone, but it’s a collective effort. We need to take a lot of options into consideration including; how would the packaging work when it is being filled on our customers’ lines, how will we trial the material on our customers’ machines, will the packaging protect the product?  Will it do a good job providing information and instructions? We also need to evaluate how easy it is to dispose of the packaging product and if the infrastructure exists to make this possible. What we can say is that everyone has their role to play to make sure that solutions are truly circular and sustainable.”  

Collectively, packaging needs to meet many requirements. It has to be innovative, fit-for-purpose, recyclable and/ or biodegradable, printable, generic, bespoke, affordable, sustainable, comfortable and practical, preserving the valuable resources and reducing CO2 emissions. This is quite a list and illustrates the need for us all to continue to communicate, share best practices and develop sustainable solutions that do not over-package a product.

By adopting a pragmatic, objective approach, with a real focus on innovation, we can all ensure that products are packaged according to their needs, while being confident that we are aiming for solutions that are sustainable by design.