The circular life of renewable packaging

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Published 6 June 2017
​Ever thought that by walking into a store, choosing a fibre-based juice carton and later by recycling it, you are contributing to a circular economy? While it may seem like just a buzz word, circular economy is all about using natural resources with care, recycling, and avoiding waste and fossil carbon emissions – for the best of the environment and the economy. Unlike many competing materials, Stora Enso's raw materials are both renewable and recyclable, contributing to a circular economy as well as to a sustainable bioeconomy.
When you enter a grocery store anywhere in the world to buy juice or milk in a carton package, the chances of it being produced from Stora Enso's board are good – every fourth beverage carton in the world is made from Stora Enso's renewable board. In addition to beverages, the company's board is used globally for food packaging, such as crushed tomatoes or vegetables.

"The main purpose of a package is to protect the food inside throughout the supply chain – during filling, in transport, on display in the store, and finally in your own refrigerator," explains Ola Svending, Sustainability Director at Stora Enso's Consumer Board division.

While oceans are widely being polluted with plastic waste and demand on the world's limited natural resources is growing, consumers are becoming more conscious about the environmental benefits that renewable, fibre-based packaging materials can offer.

"Compared to other packaging materials, such as plastics or glass, we use a renewable raw material from forests that continue to grow, if we manage them sustainably," reminds Svending.

Renewable, recyclable, and low-carbon

Because they are both renewable and recyclable , Stora Enso's various products contribute to a circular bioeconomy – an economy that moves away from the traditional "take-make-dispose" model and instead focuses on using natural resources as efficiently as possible. Using renewable raw materials is an essential aspect of a well-functioning circular economy.

"Choosing food and beverage carton packages that are produced out of renewable raw materials instead of plastics, glass, or cans is a conscious choice for the climate," Svending says. "Independent lifecycle assessments conducted by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IFEU) show that the carbon footprint of a plastic PET bottle is substantially bigger than that of a fibre-based package."

When the carton is recycled, the benefits for society are multiplied: recycled beverage cartons can be used for instance in the production of liner board, copy paper, and tissue paper. Fibre can be recycled up to seven times and finally recovered as renewable energy.

More with less
Board stiffness plays an important role in making a safe and durable beverage carton. The secret is to achieve stiffness with not more but less raw material. In line with the circular economy thinking, there is growing trend towards the use of less raw materials while also meeting the required characteristics for the board.

"Thanks to continuous R&D work, we have doubled the number of cartons that can be produced from the same amount of wood over the past 50 years," says Svending. "This has brought a significant reduction in our fibre, water and energy use as well as transportation needs – bringing both environmental and economic benefits for us and our customers."

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The latest innovation is microfibrillated-cellulose-based (MFC) beverage packaging board. This enables further reduction in the weight of the board without compromising the packaging performance.
"Future developments for more renewable solutions include barrier films for grease and oxygen as well as biodegradable film as replacement for aluminum and transparent MFC films."

Reducing food waste

It is estimated that some 88 million tonnes of food are wasted annually in the EU at the same time as hundreds of millions of people are suffering from malnutrition. This puts additional pressure on the world's scarce natural resources. Consumers can contribute for instance by choosing the most suitable packaging size in the store so that no food goes to waste.

"As more and more people live in single households we can see a clear trend from large family-size packages into one-portion packages. Our industry can help in reducing food waste by providing board that is fit for producing smaller packaging sizes," says Svending.

Ultimately, by providing the used fibre-based packaging for recycling so that it becomes raw material for new products consumers can ensure that the circular bioeconomy continues to loop.