Way back in time, when newsprint, cardboard and food packaging production started, fresh fibers were sourced from the forest to do the job. Of course, as time went on, the world came to realize that we should take back those fibers already in use and give them new life - over and over again.
Today, we know that more and more people want the packaging they use to be recycled and therefore, it needs to be as recyclable as possible. Many brands have answered the call. And many share Stora Enso’s passion to drive innovations that will allow us to recycle even more and in more effective ways.
Increasing the recycled fiber content in lower-end applications like newspaper and cardboard boxes is pretty easy. Your morning paper (if you still read the paper version) and those boxes your internet shopping habits make you collect in your garage are likely almost, if not entirely, made of recycled fibers. The packaging on the shelves in your local supermarket or the paper cup you drink your morning coffee out of are a different story all together.
Today, all food contact packaging is made from fresh fibers. Yes, that’s right – all of it. At least in Europe, there are currently no food applications that accept recycled fiber due to the extremely high requirements for purity. So when your takeaway lunch and other food packaging gets put into the correct recycling bin (which we hope it does!), it ends up reborn as those lower-end applications I mentioned, like newsprint and cardboard boxes. In a perfect world, those high-quality fibers could be used for much more demanding applications.
So what makes using recycled fiber everywhere such a challenge? One of the biggest is that fibers become more unpredictable during the recycling process. And since you also can’t be sure where the fibers have been, you don’t know what kinds of impurities they may contain. That means the cleaning process is key.
Step one – clean
Fibers are generally very receptive to cleaning because paper is made in a similar process to begin with. There’s a water system for making packaging material out of fibers and cleaning them also, which makes cleaning fibers much easier than cleaning plastics, for example, where there really is no good washing solution available to get all the impurities out of the system.
When fibers go through a production loop, they maintain their internal integrity, which again is not the case for plastics, where the polymer chains are broken down and destroyed as they’re heated up / molten to form a new shape. With fiber, the main challenge is really the length of the fiber. Every time fibers go through the loop, they get chopped down, yielding smaller and smaller pieces as you go.
We are working on improving the cleaning process and making it cheaper and more versatile. And we’re also looking at the footprint of the cleaning process, so energy use and CO2 emissions. Because if cleaning takes too much effort and it’s better for the environment to use fresh fiber, then why do it? It needs to make sense economically and ecologically and that is something we are working hard to innovate.
Step two – sort
Once the fibers are cleaned, the next step is to sort them by quality. In addition to being easier to clean, fibers are also easier to sort than polymers. This is exciting because it means fibers can be reused many more times than polymers – up to 20 times if you do it right, whereas polymers can only be reused around 2 to 5 times. The challenge is finding ways to recycle fibers back into what they were in the first place, so cup-to-cup or carton-to- carton, for example.
If you look at liquid beverage cartons and coffee cups, for example, those are fresh and very high-quality fibers with a good value. Many of them are recycled, but end up re-used in less demanding applications and therefore some value is lost.
We know from experience and passionately believe that we can do much better with those fibers if they are sorted in a better way. We are working hard to improve this process, called “cascading,” to allow fibers to be reused in higher-end applications like food packaging.
Here again, fiber length and the health of the fiber is important. In general, as long as the cleaning process is up to par, there is no reason why these quality fibers shouldn’t go back into food applications.
The ultimate goal
We know the loop will never be closed entirely because some fibers are always lost when they’re recycled and fresh fibers will always be needed to strengthen the recycled ones. In short term, our goal is to make sure that fibers are used to their maximum potential, and there is a great deal we can do to make that happen. But the ultimate goal would be a matchmaking platform that would allow us to recycle things back into what they were, so cup-to-cup for example, mixed with fresh fibers of course to keep the quality up.
At Stora Enso, our goal is to inject as many fibers as possible back into this loop. For us, every fiber counts. We advocate for being frugal about how much new fiber we put in. And we are doing a great deal of work to minimize the loss of fiber in these processes. My personal dream would be to show that recycled fibers in general in food applications can work when cleaned properly.
All in all, this is a collective effort and there’s a lot you can do as a consumer. The better you recycle what you use, the more likely it is that the fibers will reach their full potential and live for many more loops. And you can also give feedback to the brands you interact with and push them to do things like recycle cups, if you’ve noticed that they only provide a general trash bin. We are not giving up on our goal of getting the best fibers back to the best place. Every fiber counts.