Renewable packaging and recycling

Renewable & circular – the winning combo in packaging

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Earlier this year Stora Enso joined the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment to eliminate plastic waste and pollution at the source, led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. But what does it mean in practice? Is plastic really that bad, and how can one make truly sustainable choices? Eija Hietavuo, SVP Sustainability at Stora Enso’s Packaging Materials division, explains.

What is the New Plastics Economy commitment? Why is it important?
Plastic waste is a global problem as it pollutes our seas and the environment, enters our food chains and affects our health negatively. This commitment unites businesses, governments, and other organisations behind a common vision to address plastic pollution at its source. The idea is to change how we produce, use, and recycle plastic. Stora Enso’s role here is to find better alternatives to unnecessary plastics, to come up with solutions that are made of renewable materials that are functional and can be recycled.

But plastic can be recycled. Is there a problem if you recycle?
The world is running out of raw materials and fossil plastics come from a finite source. Using materials that are renewable means you take an alternative that grows back. Trees in sustainably managed forests grow over and over again, and their fibres can be recycled to produce valuable raw material.

The recycling of plastics is also challenging, as there are so many types of plastics that can’t be mixed in the recycling process. The vast majority of plastic waste gets incinerated, unfortunately. Statistics* show that only 42.4% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling in Europe, while the corresponding number for paper and cardboard packaging is a whopping 84.8%. At Stora Enso, we work with our value chain to increase that number even further. As an example, our Langerbrugge Mill in Belgium is exploring large scale recycling of paper cups for magazine paper production

But I want to make it clear – replacing fossil-based plastics with renewable materials is a journey that will not happen overnight. We can start by targeting unnecessary plastics, the kind that we can easily live without or the kind that we can replace with a renewable alternative.

Can you give examples of Stora Enso products that help reduce plastics?
There are many to mention. Trayforma by Stora Enso can be used to make paperboard trays that can replace plastic trays in frozen food packages. Cupforma Natura Solo is renewable paperboard for cups, produced without a traditional plastic coating layer and designed for full fibre recovery in recycling. EcoFishBox by Stora Enso can replace traditional polystyrene fish boxes in transportation. Dissolving pulp can be used to produce viscose that can replace fossil-based polyester, for example.

We also have really interesting recent developments on the consumer packaging side –
Formed Fibre for packaging has the potential to completely replace a wide range of plastic packaging. Its technology enables to make products that are circular by design, meaning that they are renewable, recyclable and biodegradable and do not include any plastic.

In addition, our innovation pipeline contains exciting future alternatives like Micro Fibrillated Cellulose (MFC) which has the potential to replace flexible plastic in different end uses.

Is recyclable better than biodegradable?
Wood fibres are valuable raw material that can be recycled at least 5-7 times, so in general it’s always best to recover them. But in reality, the most sustainable solution depends on many things including the place of consumption and access to recycling bins and systems. Some countries do not prefer compostable packaging as it is downcycling. But there is definitely a place and time for biodegradable packaging – if there is no easy access to recycling and a high risk for the packaging to end up in nature.

It’s not possible to recycle fibre-based packaging in all countries and remote locations. What are you doing about that?
A lot. We are working together with our value chain to find solutions. One example of this work is EXTR:ACT, a new platform to drive the industry’s engagement in carton recycling across Europe.

We also actively engage with customers regarding recycling options in different locations. If we are, for example, selling fibre-based cups to a coffee customer in Germany, we will discuss the recycling opportunities in the areas where they operate and what kind of alternatives exist for cup collection.

Give us some practical tips. How can we as consumers make truly sustainable packaging choices?
Firstly, avoid unnecessary packaging. Secondly, see if you can reuse your packaging, and then recycle it. Thirdly, whenever possible, choose renewable packaging as it is a fossil-free choice.

But the real purpose of packaging is to protect its contents. Packaging has a huge role in combatting the global problem of food waste which contributes to climate change. A truly sustainable package is right-sized and protects the goods inside until they have been consumed. As a consumer your job is to make sure none of the food or beverages you buy goes to waste!