Paper and cartonboard manufacturers are becoming increasingly concerned about sustainability in their industry. A significant portion of paper and cartonboard goes towards packaging, and this has two important implications.
Firstly, the industry uses a good deal of virgin pulp from forest sources (48.6 million tonnes in 2006) and these need to be sustainable. “Austrian and Finnish forests are 100% sustainable and Sweden is at 98%,” says Jori Ringman, recycling director of the Confederation of European Paper Industries (CEPI). “Sustainable / certified forest acreage in Europe is increasing all the time, by the equivalent of 4,000 football pitches a day, but globally only 9% of forests are sustainable.”
Secondly, the final product packaging is discarded after use; this material could be recycled and converted into wood pulp for reuse in paper and board manufacturing. A certain amount of virgin pulp always needs to be included in new paper manufacture as during the recycling process fibres are broken down and the new fibres add strength.
“This a question of application, as some papers are 100% recycled but other high grades of paper and board would have a higher amount of virgin pulp,” says Ringman. “Case materials in Europe – corrugated board and cardboard packaging – are made from 91.3% recycled material.”
Paper and cartonboard recycling across Europe has been increasing over the last ten years, with a recycling rate of 60% in 1997 increasing to an estimated 77% for 2006 (statistics from the Paper Packaging Coordination Group). This is well beyond the figure of 60% set for paper by the EU’s Packaging Directive for 2008.
ISSUES FOR SUSTAINABILITY
Most of the environmental impact with paper and board packaging lies in the manufacturing of the base material. The most important priority for packaging now is to minimise the amount of material required to perform the task it has been designed for – the protection and marketing of the goods. Equally important is to use printing inks, glue and material combinations that do not hinder the recycling process.
The lifecycle assessment or ‘cradle-to-grave-analysis’ of paper and cartonboard tends to be positive as long as they are not used in combination with other problematic materials, such as certain inks or plastic coatings.
If packaging can be kept simple there is much greater success in recycling it in a ‘cradle-to-cradle’ fashion.
However, there is a finite limit on the number of cycles packaging can be put through, as fibres will eventually break down and be too small to use. Also, the unused sludge from the recycling process can be composted and returned to the land (currently only allowed in the UK) or even used as biomass to produce a clean fuel.
SUSTAINABILITY AROUND THE WORLD
Amcor is a good example of a global producer of a wide range of paper products trying to increase the sustainability of the paper market. Its cartonboard production plant at Petrie near Brisbane is the only coated cartonboard manufacturing plant in Australia, producing about 140,000t each year.
The Petrie plant utilises a range of inputs and produces two types of cartonboard: ‘greybacks’ (groceries) and ‘whitebacks’ (pharmaceutical, cosmetics etc.) About 150,000t of wastepaper are used in the production process each year, of which 81% is derived from Queensland sources. Less than 1% of waste paper inputs are imported. The plant also uses 30,000t of woodchips sourced from Queensland sawmills.
In addition, about 10,000t of virgin wood pulp are used each year in production of cartonboard at the plant – this pulp is mainly sourced from Tasman Pulp in New Zealand, with the remainder coming from Paperlink in Victoria. Amcor also purchases about $11.5m of clay-coating components each year, mostly from suppliers in Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia.
Cartonboard production is supported by Australian Recycled Cartonboard (ARC), a very successful recycling project started in 1995 to help reduce the waste stream. In Europe, Smurfit Kappa is the lead user of recovered paper, annually making use of over five million tonnes.
CONSUMER REACTION AND MARKET PERCEPTION
Ipsos, one of the world’s leading market research companies, recently conducted a survey with European consumers about packaging preferences. The results were very positive for the paper and board market, with nine out of ten consumers preferring paper-based packaging or labelling over other possibilities.
Every day, the typical consumer in Europe interacts with ten to 20 pieces of packaging. Over 87% believed that paper packaging was easier to use and more convenient and 93% said that companies should use more paper packaging and labels because it was better for the environment.
In 2005 ProCarton, the association of European cartonboard and carton manufacturers, commissioned a report from Packaging Research Intelligence Strategies and Marketing Limited (PRISM) on the ‘interface between cartons and flexible packaging’. The report predicted that ‘the European market for cartons would grow by 1.8% between 2005 and 2010,’ with a similar rate of growth for flexible packaging.
The survey of fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) companies came to some interesting conclusions: “When launching a premium product, 57% of FMCG respondents said that they would use cartons as a first choice, whereas only 11% said they would use flexibles,” states the survey.
Another section of the report on purchasing intentions notes that ‘when asked whether they would be likely to switch products into folding cartons, flexible packaging or combination packs in the future, about half of the respondents said they were likely to make changes. Of these, 40% expected to use more cartons as a replacement for flexibles. A further 40% anticipated using more cartons in combination with flexibles, and less than 20% expected to make changes from cartons to flexibles.’
The report concludes ‘that the folding carton industry is well ahead of flexible packaging on the two critical environmental issues, the use of a renewable resource and recyclability back to new packaging.’
IMPROVEMENTS IN SUSTAINABILITY
To keep pace with the ever-increasing demands from the market and the competition from alternative materials, paper and board manufacturers have had to make steady improvements in their products. The reduction of base weight in many kraft papers has given more square metres per kilo of paper and the printability of label papers has improved considerably through new coating techniques and materials.
The paper industry is beginning to offer packaging papers with barriers against grease and water vapour, which are biodegradable and fully recyclable. There are natural biodegradable polymers available from maize, sugar and potatoes that can be coated or laminated onto paper, giving a totally biodegradable product with specific barrier properties.
The chemistry of wood and fibres has not really modified that much in the last 100 years. The paper and board industry would like to be able to modify the bulk or surface properties of paper and cartonboard to a greater degree but new technology is required.
Technology would give the ability to specify the length and size of fibres, change their shape completely or make them more or less water repellent. This type of change can be accomplished with nanotechnology.
PAPER AND BOARD FOR PACKAGING
The specific ‘feel’ or haptic property of the paper surface is familiar and comfortable for many people, as are its ‘sound’ and visual aspects. Made from natural fibres, paper is also a truly natural product.
Besides the cellulose fibres, other important raw materials in paper production are kaolin (china clay) and potato-based starch.
In the production process paper undergoes many different treatments in order to achieve the specification required for its end use. It may be coated on one or both sides to give it improved printability. Besides coating, whether paper is calendared or not determines its surface characteristics, which can vary from rough to very smooth and glossy.
When developing modern paper grades, the haptic-optic properties are a crucial part of the design. Current technology allows one paper to differentiate itself from others by the way it is structured and coated. The structure of the paper surface, achieved by the topcoat, can give a paper its own specific ‘feel’.
The optical properties of paper are equally important. The different surface structures not only determine the feel, but also give visual differentiation to paper. Besides this, there are many other techniques to enhance the visual aspects of paper, by means of embossing or vacuum metallising.
THE FUTURE FOR PAPER AND CARTONBOARD
Paper and cartonboard are some of the most sustainable and recyclable packaging resources. By the use of sustainable plantation forests to produce wood fibre pulp, and the highly successful recycling schemes for paper across Europe, the paper industry is in a strong position.
With schemes such as the European Recovered Paper Council (ERPC) commitments on increasing the amount of recovered paper across the continent, sustainability seems to be in good hands.
As Jori Ringman says, “The paper and board industry appears to be getting very close to becoming ‘carbon neutral’ and this will be a positive step towards the mitigation of climate change.”
Public perception of paper and board packaging is positive, and developing technologies are providing enhanced grades of paper and board for new packaging applications. The future looks good for paper and board as a leading packaging resource.