Don’t let the world run out of recycled materials

Recycling is undoubtedly a key factor in a sustainable economy and our way of life. So you have to love it. In fact, enough not to let the world run out of materials to recycle. In this equation, an ever-growing need for packaging is both part of the challenge, but also part of the solution.

6.5.2021

It’s no joke. For example, digitalisation diminishes the amount of recyclable raw material, as we tend to consume our news and editorials via screens. So imagine if we actually ran out of paperboard. How would we replace the packaging material? With glass, metal, even plastics? The question in itself seems absurd, as the whole world is in a joint attempt to replace as much non-renewable materials such as plastic with renewable ones.

Consequently, the demand for sustainable paperboard packaging is constantly increasing, thanks also to legislation and regulations like the European Union-driven European strategy for plastics in a circular economy.  But why don’t we just recycle the same materials again and again? Wouldn’t that be the most environmentally friendly thing to do?

Circular economy needs a fresh start

Circularity often boils down to three things; reducing, reusing and recycling.

But the fourth R, renewable materials, is usually forgotten. To keep the closed loop system working, we need something to start with. And wood fibre is a perfect raw material in this sense. It is pure and strong, and hence can be recycled multiple times.

The average Joe usually perceives rough surface, brownish-grey packaging as the most sustainable option. The colour of the packaging, however, is really not an indicator of environmental friendliness (even if some companies go to the extent of printing white paperboard brown to make it appear more sustainable). This is because both virgin paperboard and recycled paperboard used for packaging are equally good and necessary parts of the same cycle.

Which cup one is more sustainable? Many would intuitively vote for the brown one, but in reality, colour is not always an indicator of environmental friendliness. Firstly, both are made of virgin wood fibres. And secondly, the carbon footprint of packaging made from recycled materials can be even bigger than packaging made from virgin wood fibres.

Nothing lasts forever, as they say, and after a certain amount of circulation the quality simply gets too poor to perform for even the most basic applications such as transport packaging that does not need to look pretty but to endure. However, before that, let’s do everything in our power to recycle all the packaging to the fullest. Here’s how.

Sometimes recycling is simply not possible (or safe)

Recycling instructions vary by country, area or even housing cooperative. But generally, stuffing your recycle bin with used tissue papers and greasy food wrappings is not a good idea. When misplaced, they can unnecessarily contaminate perfectly good recyclables. 

Or how does a tasty Friday pizza delivered in chemically treated recycled packaging sound? Luckily, there are food-related product safety standards for packaging to prevent recycled traces of chemicals ending up on our plate. In the EU, USA and the Asia-Pacific area there are regulations on materials intended to come into direct contact with food to ensure that  products are safe and hygienic for consumption. The packaging industry is working hard on developing safer, more renewable alternatives for products such as food and drink containers.

Sustainable forest management is a must for the packaging industry

Norwegian carton producer Elopak reminds us that if paperboard wishes to live up to its environmentally friendly reputation, sustainable sourcing is essential. No disagreement here – fresh or recycled paperboard packaging all has to start with wood. To be more precise, with wood that is growing in a sustainably managed forest.

Ultimately the entity – securing forest biodiversity, carbon storage and the merry-go-round of the circular economy – is a joint effort. And for this mission, alliances like 4evergreen have been established among companies to further perfect the already high circularity of fibre-based packaging.

What can I do as a consumer?

Ever find yourself thinking, am I doing enough when it comes to sustainability and recycling? Reducing unnecessary consumption is the baseline, but you are also welcome to take a quick look at this checklist.

  1. Focus on packaging. When possible, purchase items packed in renewable materials.
  2. Remember to recycle according to the local instructions. And think of creative ways to turn the rubbish in your home into treasures.
  3. Give feedback about bad packaging! Did you just receive an item packed first in a paperboard box followed by a double layer of bubble wrap? If it feels like it’s too much, speak up.

Everything is connected

Neil Whittall
Head of Sustainability – Fiber Foodservice EAO

Neil Whittall, Head of Sustainability at Huhtamäki – a global food packaging supplier – discusses food safety, megatrends and circular economy.

What does sustainability mean for Huhtamäki on a general level?
At Huhtamaki, we see sustainability as something to be considered in all aspects of business and life and we strive to embed this thought in everything we do. We recognize the interconnectedness and the complex networks of sustainability. In practice, this means that we feel responsible not only for the use and distribution of our products, but also for how they are made and where they end up after use. Everything is connected.

In your business, do you see some emerging megatrends steering the industry towards using recyclable or fresh fibre packaging?
Definitely. We are constantly seeing new options and solutions emerge on the market. Right now, special emphasis is placed on fibre-based solutions and plant-based alternatives.
Providing a secondary life to materials is also something that is definitely staying on the agenda. Looking at further opportunities and ease in recycling as well as taking the whole value chain into consideration, is an inherent part of the story now and in the future.
Megatrends and societal change must though be based on sound evidence to ensure environmentally viable solutions, for instance plastic substitution, not everywhere is the same so systems/decisions need evidence.

How is food safety taken into account in the packaging you produce?
Food packaging plays a critical part in food safety. Packaging protects food and extends shelf life in a very complex and in many cases long supply chain.
Alongside this vital function, packaging must also provide the consumer with a safe and hygienic product. Single use products used correctly can guarantee hygiene and have played a vital part as we have gone through the current pandemic. These products comply with all food contact regulations and help society function from the retail environment and to supporting our busier lives in out of home and now also in the growing home delivery market. 

How do you see the role of virgin and recycled wood fibre?
There here needs to be a balance in what we put into the system and what we decide to reuse. For instance, if the world today was run on fully recycled materials, we would be running out of material as we speak. We need virgin materials, such as sustainably sourced fibre, alongside the recycled ones in order for the process to function adequately and for the products to perform correctly. We are recyclers here at Huhtamäki and use significant amounts of recycled materials. However, it is vital to understand when we need to start feeding the process again.

On a personal note, are there some choices or actions that you take in everyday life that touch the packaging of food and beverages?
I like to think that I have reasonable knowledge from my 30 years in packaging with Huhtamaki, but I realise there is always something new to learn. Science plays a major part in this thinking; there are always multiple understandings and implications to consider and endless amounts of interesting research. For me personally, this has meant following the latest research on single use vs. re-use from a carbon, freshwater and hygiene point of view and where we might find the best solutions in this dynamic. I would encourage everyone to dig deep!

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