Hans Wortman is Chair of the 4evergreen Alliance and Head of PfR sourcing at WEPA.
Earlier this month, world leaders, entrepreneurs, academics and citizens came together to discuss ground breaking solutions to address climate change. COP26 was a milestone, with the circular economy recognised as key to tackling global challenges, including climate change and reducing the pressure on our precious natural resources.
Reaching a more circular economy is critical to fulfilling the objectives set in Glasgow. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 45% of greenhouse gases emissions come from producing goods that we use every day[i]. What if we could re-use and recycle all these products to get more out of the materials and improve our environmental impact?
At the European level, the New Circular Economy Action Plan places circularity at the very heart of the European Green Deal and names it as a prerequisite to achieving the EU’s 2050 climate neutrality target. The new regulations and targets coming out of this and other European Green Deal initiatives challenge the industry to take ambitious action on the climate and the environment.
How will we get there? By embracing a holistic approach.
Ambitious targets require us to come out of our silo’s and work together to deliver.
4evergreen has done just this, bringing together more than 130 experts from 80 industry leaders active throughout the whole value chain to look at all areas of packaging sustainability. We are working together to improve how we design, collect, sort, and recycle fibre-based packaging. Our membership allows us to embrace a holistic and collaborative approach to identify, assess, test, innovate, and later implement solutions that improve fibre-based packaging systems. In addition, we aim at closing identified performance gaps and unlocking improvements in the recycling rate.
The very first stage is packaging design. Appropriate packaging design is vital for building a circular economy. The design phase determines up to 80%[ii] of any products’ environmental impact. Our ‘Circularity by Design’ guidelines aim to bring confidence to designers and packaging developers so that they can produce more fibre-based packaging designed for efficient recycling from the start.
A second stage of the fibre-based packaging life cycle is collection and sorting. If we want to recycle more material and improve the quality of recycled materials, we must have a more effective collection and sorting. We can only recycle the material that is collected, and the vast differences in collection & sorting practices across Europe limit the potential for recycling. Within 4evergreen, we see a massive opportunity for improving the recycling rate if we harmonise the approach to collecting and sorting fibre-based materials, reducing unaccounted for waste and simplifying the process of designing recyclable packaging.
Fibre-based packaging: a forerunner of packaging sustainability.
We sometimes hear people say, “why fibre-based packaging?”, why should it be considered a better option from a sustainability perspective? Fibre-based packaging is derived from natural, renewable materials and is made of fibres that can be re-used multiple times naturally. This capability lends itself to efficient recycling. Fibre-based packaging currently accounts for 38%[iii] of packaging in Europe and serves as a sustainable solution in a wide range of end-uses, offering several advantages. Fibre-based packaging could also easily replace up to 25% of plastics used in packaging, translating into significant CO2 emissions savings[iv].
Fibre-based packaging already has a recycling rate of 83%[v], the highest of all packaging materials in Europe. Fibre-based packaging is already made of mostly recycled material; however, fresh fibres are always needed to ensure that there is material for recycling in the first place. We continually work to make our products even more sustainable, reducing C02 emissions occurring in the production phase by 29% since 2005[vi]. But we aren’t settling for being the best; to meet targets like the 1.5° warming limit we are determined to continue reducing our impact, step by step.
Our experts are compiling a Recyclability Evaluation protocol, which will help the industry recognise which fibre-based packaging types can be recycled depending on the available mill technologies. This is the first and exciting step towards raising the overall recycling rate of fibre-based packaging to 90% in Europe by 2030. With this protocol, every brand owner, retailer, converter, or waste management company can enhance its understanding of the recyclability of different materials. This is one example of how we want to clarify collection, sorting and recycling practices throughout Europe.
How to achieve a more circular and sustainable future?
Our members have demonstrated their proactive commitment and responsibility as part of the fibre-based packaging value chain. They have a strong desire to go further towards creating a climate-neutral society, basing their collaboration on expert knowledge and fact-based, scientific assessments.
To achieve ‘Net-Zero’, we cannot just rely on the currently available technologies. We will need to think boldly and collaborate with start-ups and adopt an innovative mindset to develop novel technologies that can be rolled out at scale. That is why we are investigating various new sorting and recycling technologies to foster future-proof solutions for packaging.
Moreover, we believe that consumer awareness and participation in the recycling process are fundamental to improving European efficiency. However, divergences in collection practices across regions and countries can instil confusion and limit the efficiency of collection systems. A higher level of uniformity will lead to a vast simplification, thus significantly improving the fibre-based packaging recycling process.
Significant challenges, ambitious actions
With all the evidence we now have on the unprecedented challenges our planet is facing, there is a call to take ambitious actions. Everyone, from industry to policymakers to consumers, must respond to the threat of climate change. Our members are committed to doing their part by working together to raise the overall recycling rate of fibre-based packaging and make our society more sustainable.
On November 30th, during our online conference “A Circular Future for Packaging: perfecting the circularity of fibre-based packaging together”, we will provide the first glimpse into the findings from our research, outlining the first steps towards a more sustainable and climate-neutral future for fibre-based packaging.
[iv] Eurostat (2018) ‘Recycling rate’ for the purposes of Article 6(1) of Directive 94/62/EC means the total quantity of recycled packaging waste, divided by the total quantity of generated packaging waste. Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/databrowser/view/ten00063/default/table