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  • 07 Aug 2012

The future is carton

The cartonboard market has much to shout about regarding its environmental credentials, but is it doing enough? David Pittman speaks to key players in the industry to find out.
 
From governments and legislative bodies, and the industries who work within their jurisdictions, to the brands whose reputations are on the line and consumers whose conscience is being tested, there can be no doubt that the environment is a topic that has grown in significance over recent years.
 
From cars and machinery emissions, to food miles and over-fishing, there are few areas of life that have not been touched by environmental concerns, more often than not highlighted by leading names in each area being exposed in the press by campaign organizations like Greenpeace for activities deemed to be bad for the environment.
 
Christer Nordman, sales and marketing director at Pankaboard, a specialist producer of higher density boards, says: ‘The environment is not just an issue for the packaging market, it is happening everywhere.’ Nordman says Pankaboard has taken to using only virgin fibers in its products to avoid any potential cross-contamination in food packaging, and says: ‘This is a trend that will continue and will influence the virgin fiber and recycled board markets for food and non-food markets.’
 
As a whole though, having a substrate with a renewable material at its heart means cartonboard is one of the few materials with a positive story to tell.
 
Pro Carton president Roland Rex says: ‘A study by German market research organization GfK has shown that two-thirds of consumers want environmentally friendly packaging.
 
‘Cartonboard, made from wood fiber that is sourced from sustainably managed forests, is the only significant packaging material for fast-moving consumer goods made from a renewable material. Secondly, 87 percent of paper, cartonboard and cardboard packaging is collected and reused for making recycled paper and cartonboard again, while 78 percent of packaging is made from recovered fibers, which stay in the loop several times before they end up in thermal usage.
 
‘Using cardboard packaging firstly made from wood fiber, then secondly from recovered fiber, is the most sustainable and environmentally friendly way for packaging. And this is definitively recognized by the consumer.’
 
Speaking jointly, Päivi Harju-Eloranta, director of sustainability in Stora Enso’s renewable packaging business area, and Ohto Nuottamo, senior packaging adviser in the same unit, say: ‘Cartonboard is made from trees and has, therefore, sustainability built into it.
 
‘As a renewable packaging material cartonboard is part of the natural carbon cycle: it is powered by the sun and at the end of its life it can be used as bioenergy. Before that, the fibers have five to seven lives in various types of packaging products through recycling.’
 
Johan Granås, Iggesund’s Invercote product manager, says: ‘The environment is high on the agenda with customers we speak to. But sustainability is a term that has been abused. A lot of people refer to a whole chunk of different things when talking about sustainability, like raw material production, industrial processes, emissions, energy and water use, and others. There’s a move now towards the more ethical side of sustainability: sourcing and how the forest has been managed. This has all been wrapped up in sustainability.’
 
Ethics
He predicts the ethical strand of sustainability will be what becomes most prominent in future years, as buyers become younger, more critical and more conscious of their surroundings.
 
‘We feel this already but doing the right thing will become an important part of business. People with brands that are worth something cannot afford to be associated with bad press.’
 
Harju-Eloranta and Nuottamo state: ‘In general it can be said that conscientious players in the supply network are becoming aware of the significance of lifecycle analysis. Instead of studies with a limited scope, the whole cradle-to-cradle impact of the packaging material is taken into consideration. This means that sourcing of the raw material must be sound and based on sustainable resources. Also the end-of life impact should be positive to the environment.
 
‘The role end-of-life plays is more important than before. When used packages are recycled, they provide new raw material for new fiber-based packages. In the longer run, the brand owners are becoming aware that the non-renewable raw materials cannot be tolerated anymore, especially if the recycling is not well organized.’
 
Olli Maki, vice president of cartonboard sales at Metsä Board, agrees. ‘Brand owners are looking more and more at lifecycle analysis for all parts of their business, and are interested in knowing that material is coming from legal and sustainable sources.’
 
Metsä Board is part of the Metsä Group ownership cooperative that is formed of 125,000 private forest owners from across Finland, and which allows it to ensure its environmental credentials.
 
Maki says: ‘As they own the forest and are dependent on it for their income, they have an interest in its welfare and caring for it to maximize its long-term benefits.
This makes sustainability a number one rule in the company in order to meet the needs of not only the customers, but the forest owners too.’
 
Media polarization
Granås warns that high-profile media coverage of certain issues that are viewed as important to safeguarding the environment for the future is confusing for both consumers and the cartonboard market itself.
 
‘Polarization in the media around a specific issue puts pressure on the market on one issue, when there are plenty of other things that are significantly more important. This forces the whole industry to try and come up with an answer to one problem for one piece of the puzzle.’
 
As such, Granås says the cartonboard market needs to do more to promote the benefits it offers, including talking about the negatives. ‘The industry has not been good enough in promoting what it does that is good. We can’t pretend that it’s not a resource-heavy industry, but at the same time we’re too shy about saying what we do to work in the best possible way and promoting our strengths.
 
‘We should be showing that fiber-based materials are truly renewable, and are recoverable. We should be proud of what we’re doing, as the industry is part of something good.’
 
‘The good thing about fresh forest fiber is that it is a renewable material in an endless loop,’ says Maki. ‘I feel lucky to be in an industry that can say the main material source is here to stay. There’s always new material coming through with the forests being renewed, and fiber-based packaging can minimize the amount of material needed in the first place, before being recycled back into the loop.’
 
Alternative to plastic
Nordman says: ‘Folding boxboard uses trees as the source of its raw material, and consumers are starting to understand that wood is the only raw material on earth that is renewable. The cartonboard industry has already shown some of the benefits it can offer but in the future it will be offering many more alternatives to plastic.’
 
Advances in cartonboard have meant modern folding cartons are able to offer comparable properties to other, more rigid materials like plastic, but with a reduced weight. Maki says the whole supply chain has an interest in lightweighting of packaging, as it improves functionality while lowering costs and reducing waste management.
 
Maki continues: ‘Other raw materials are being used and disappearing. By combining renewable qualities with less weight, the story keeps going and going for the cartonboard market.’
 
Stora Enso’s Harju-Eloranta and Nuottamo add: ‘Our main driver in the development of cartonboard is resource efficiency. This means efficient use of wood, water and energy.
 
‘By constantly developing lighter packaging materials, it means less use of wood. Lighter packaging materials mean lighter packages and reduced emissions in transportation. And if packaging is not recycled or recovered and it is sent to landfill, it means less packaging waste.
 
‘Awareness of the environment is growing all the time. Current drivers are the debate on the availability of natural resources, climate change and littering problems. Here the raw material manufacturing industry has failed to understand its responsibility in taking the message of renewable packaging beyond the converter, to the end user, even the consumer.
We have a humongous job in front of us trying to get the complex message of renewable resource management across to the consumers.’
 
Maki says package printers and converters are fairly well educated on environmental and sustainability issues, and that they are partaking in professional conversations on the subject, although adding: ‘It’s a fairly straightforward topic to comprehend but can be complicated by legislation in different markets. There’s so much information and so many opinions out there that it can be quite difficult to follow what is right and what is wrong.’
 
Granås says another issue with high-profile press coverage of the environmental agenda is that it often requires reactive decisions, which are not in keeping with the nature of cartonboard production. ‘Cartonboard production is capital intensive, so we struggle to respond to short-term things. The capital outlay is massive, so we can’t just adjust depending on the latest flavour in the news. The industry has to be much more structured.’
 
Legislation and frameworks
He says government legislation is a good driver for the cartonboard market, highlighting the Swedish government’s national programs to monitor and control the relationship between cartonboard producers and the environment. Maki says Finland has similar rules that have been in place for around 100 years, promoting the environment and controlling the forests.
 
‘The government has a great interest in keeping things in good order.’
 
‘This allows us to work towards the future, rather than reacting to things from the past,’ adds Granås. ‘A structured process is important for us as it’s not a short-term, reactive issue.’
 
Furthermore, an industry framework allows companies to make a more standardized appraisal of their performance against environment credentials, says Granås. ‘If you compare different sites on a single parameter, you’ll often get different results, depending on where they are located, the nearby environment and how it is working. That can be quite hard to explain to customers.’
 
A holistic approach is said to benefit both the cartonboard market and its customers. Granås says Iggesund works with one particular Swedish furniture retailer who operates with a fluid appraisal system for its suppliers that requires a plan of action from those that don’t meet all its criteria on how they plan to improve in the future.
 
‘This approach lets you leverage the areas where you are good, even if you’re not good everywhere and compensate the cons with the pros and then work on improving the areas where you are below their expectations.
 
‘We’ve seen a lot of companies adopt this type of holistic approach in recent years as some were being too narrow minded and needed to take a broader perspective of material sourcing.’
 
Granås adds: ‘It boils down to wanting a supplier that is more or less good in all aspects.’
 
Iggesund has been working to this model for a long time, offering those it supplies a promise that, ‘there will be no surprises,’ says Granås. ‘We’ve shied away from talking about carbon footprints and other topics, instead saying we’re good all over and making sure customers understand that if you buy from us then we guarantee that we are good in all areas.’
 
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