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On the road to circular packaging - beyond the 3 Rs

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Circularity in packaging is a hot topic especially on the European agenda and rightfully so. To achieve climate neutrality targets and to halt biodiversity loss, the transition to a circular economy is a prerequisite. What does it take to make the shift from the traditional take, make, waste system to a truly circular packaging model? Here are my thoughts on making the transition to circular packaging a reality.

Beyond the 3 Rs

If you ask a room full of people what circularity in packaging means, chances are you’ll hear responses related to the 3 Rs - Reducing, Reusing, and Recycling. Sounds simple, right? Well, the 3 Rs are just part of circular system thinking. The reality is quite a complex network of activities and actions for how raw materials are sourced and managed, how products are designed, made and used, and how materials are handled afterwards. There are technological, regulatory, sustainability and market driven considerations along the way, not to mention the need for collaboration and even standardization across the value chain. I am delighted to see great progress being made in many areas, while in others there’s still work to be done.

Renewable and recyclable by design

A circular economy is only possible when raw materials are also circular – materials that can be renewed over and over again. This requires that fossil-based materials are replaced with renewable materials such as wood. In other words, resources that can be replenished, generation after generation, in a sustainable way. Wood-based products are renewable because trees grow back when forests are sustainably managed, and this is the first step in a circular system.

After the material origin is considered, the packaging design process is the next crucial step, and it means designing for the whole system and product life cycle stages. We work with circularity guidelines that provide the principles and a checklist for our entire team, detailing out what’s relevant in circular design, and what needs to be considered in every development project. In addition to the materials used, the design process considers manufacturing, the product distribution, end-use requirements and functionality. It also takes into account the potential to reduce, reuse, refurbish, remanufacture, or recycle instead of having the packaging material ending up as waste. The target is to maximize the overall value from used raw materials.

Recycling and collection system is still fractioned

When it comes to recycling and waste management, I’ve noted that it’s not always well understood how regulated the recycling industry and its value chains are. In Europe, the European Commission has both waste and packaging directives which serve as legal frameworks. And then there are national laws and local implementations. As a result, there’s not one infrastructure and recycling scheme or blueprint that’s applied everywhere. So, when it comes to circularity, the packaging design process needs to consider the legislation and recycling infrastructure of each specific market.

Another area is waste collection and the fact that procedures are not standardized from market to market. In some countries the situation is quite good, and all consumers have access to separate collection bins for different types of packaging, but for many countries there’s lots of work to be done to ensure consistency. For example, Stora Enso is targeting that both our packaging materials and packages are designed to be 100% recyclable. But for true circularity to happen, it requires that the waste collection system also enables fiber-based packaging to be collected separately from residual waste, and that we as consumers do our part in putting the used and empty packaging into the right bin. That’s one of the reasons why I believe it is so important to drive local value chain collaborations and work very closely with local partners to create systems to enable circularity.

One good example is in Poland, where we have a containerboard mill where we source the recycled raw material for our packaging and also have our own network for collection. Additionally, we collaborate closely with sorting plants and companies along the value chain. A specific example that I am very proud of is with our partner, Tetra Pak where we have invested in new recycling capacity, and where we’re getting the used beverage cartons back so we can transform them into products while making sure that all components (even barrier materials like the plastics and aluminium) are recycled and put back into the system.

Additional examples of collaboration and designing for circularity can be seen in Italy and Germany where different legislation and collections systems exist. For example, Italy supports the compostability of packaging and there’s a network of collection for compostable packaging and there are industrial composting facilities. Therefore, when it comes to food packaging that’s in direct food contact and where there’s high potential for the package to get soiled, then composting is a relevant solution for end-of-life. For this reason, a compostable ice cream package was specifically designed with our customer for the Italian market.

However, if you look at Germany, the legislation and collections schemes are different and there’s quite clear threshold for getting collected packaging into the main paper recycling stream if you have under 5% plastic barrier layer in your fiber-based packaging. So, when we’re designing packaging for the German market, it’s extremely important to look at how we can meet the 5% threshold so that we enable recycling in the main paper recycling stream. Everything needs to be assessed in quite a granular level in order to make the right decisions.

The final topic that I’d like to touch on is testing and compliance. At Stora Enso we test our full product portfolio and there needs to be compliance with the best recyclability test assessments. We use a repulpability (PTS) test system which is widely used in the European market. Our entire portfolio has been tested with that scheme and we provide all the recyclability information to our customers in the test results along with insight on country-specific collection and sorting systems. Stora Enso also participates in further development of recyclability assessment methods and circularity guidelines through 4evergreen -a value chain alliance for perfecting the circularity of fiber-based packaging.

I believe that aligning on circularity over the whole product life cycle should be our common goal. For me, alongside our own development agenda, co-operation is a key driver for our efforts in making circular packaging a reality.


Tiina Pursula

Tiina Pursula

Since 2018, Tiina has been deeply involved in developing our sustainability agenda and currently she works as SVP Sustainability in Division Packaging Materials. She has served both internal and external customers on integration of sustainability and circularity into product development and customer cases. She is a sustainability leader with over 20 years of experience in sustainability leadership positions, sustainability consulting and business development and innovations for global companies in packaging and manufacturing industries. Tiina has a Master of Science (Engineering) degree in Forest Products Technology.
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