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Working towards a circular bioeconomy with renewable solutions

To transition towards a sustainable circular bioeconomy, the world needs materials that are both recyclable and renewable. Beyond recycling, the ultimate goal is solutions that are carbon neutral and even carbon positive. 

Stora Enso has long been a pioneer in helping our customers respond to society’s needs for sustainable, renewable and recyclable solutions. With our sustainability ambitions for 2030 and 2050 we are working towards solutions that are renewable, 100% recyclable by 2030 and 100% circular by 2050.  

On the road to circular packaging 

As an example, fibre-based packaging has a low carbon footprint compared to other materials in many end-uses. Plastic, for example, is often heavily based on  fossils  and has relatively low recycling rates. And while glass and metal have relatively high recycling rates, they also have large climate footprints as a result of energy intense production processes. 

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.

Stora Enso’s services

A circular economy requires collaboration across the value chain to drive change at all stages, from product design and recyclability testing to collection and recycling systems. Stora Enso offers a number of services to support this work. We are collaborating with customers and partners to develop new circular solutions and business models to replace fossil-based plastics and cut down on waste along the supply chain.  

  • We research and test how our products perform in different kinds of recycling systems. 
  • We study how packaging materials recycling works in different markets.  
  • We analyse our products’ lifecycles and support our customers’ LCA studies.  
  • We work with industry partners to organise and boost recycling. 

Reducing material use through efficiency 

Reaching a goal for renewable packaging solutions that are 100% recyclable and ultimately 100% circular won’t always be easy, but it’s definitely achievable. We’re committed to continuing to reduce the non-fiber elements in our solutions to the absolute minimum and rethink how applications are designed. One of our key focus areas is barriers.  

While replacing non-renewable fossil-heavy packaging with fiber-based materials is fairly simple, a key innovation focus is on the structures needed to protect and preserve in the most demanding end uses: food and beverage packaging. In this case, a thin polymer layer is needed to protect the product and is recyclable. At Stora Enso, our goal is to ultimately replace plastic coatings with functional fiber-based alternatives.  

Barrier layers are important to protect the food or beverage inside the package. However, fibers alone are not fit for all requirements. For example, packaging ready-made soup in a paper box with no barrier wouldn’t work. When barriers are used, there can be strong bonding between the paper and plastic layers which consumers cannot separate. Stora Enso is  actively working on innovating barriers that are fully fiber-based or that have as little non-fiber content as possible. In addition, we’re innovating with partners across the value chain to improve the recycling infrastructure, making it easier for them to separate and handle any plastic in our barriers.  

Because there’s still room for improvement in recycling processes, some of the fibers we use are lost during recycling. That’s why there will always be a need for fresh fiber to substitute the materials and to ensure properties like stiffness and strength. Actually, if we stop injecting fresh fiber into the loop in Europe, the value chain would come to a halt in five weeks or so. At Stora Enso, our fresh fibers are sourced responsibly from sustainably managed and regenerative forests. And of course, the virgin fibers we use ultimately then become part of the process – recycled and reborn as new fibers for new products. We’re also committed to continue working with the entire value chain to innovate the recycling process itself, making it easier for products to be cleaned and recycled for reuse as food-proof packaging.

Ensuring our customers can comply with requirements for recycling 

Besides choosing the right raw materials, product design is another crucial step: designing for the whole system and product life cycle stages. At Stora Enso, we work with circularity guidelines that provide guidance. For packaging, we work with a checklist that details 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.  

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 optimising the circularity of fiber-based packaging. 

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