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A fresh look at forest fibres

Olli Mäki, VP cartonboard sales for M-real Consumer Packaging, says that contrary to some preconceptions, when it comes to sustainability, it’s hard to beat paperboard

Innovation should always be applauded. New materials such as bioplastics that have advantages in sustainability over established plastics, must be welcomed. Made from renewable crops, as opposed to shrinking supplies of fossil oil, and biodegradable at the end of their life, they have many attractions.

Of course, there are applications where plastics can’t be substituted with another packaging material. But in instances where there is a choice – and the alternative is paperboard – then buyers should not to be seduced by environmental claims for newer materials without careful consideration.

Paper and paperboard have suffered from one of the longest and most visible campaigns against their use on environmental grounds. At its height, the myth that ‘paper destroys forests’ even became a widely held belief. I can hardly remember a time when paper wasn’t being attacked for some environmental crime or another, whether bleaching, effluent or destroying wildlife habitats. It’s not surprising that there’s a lingering perception in consumers’ minds that paperboard has an unacceptable dark side.

Not before time, there is now greater appreciation of paperboard’s environmental benefi ts throughout its life cycle. Its raw material – wood – grows in forests that occur naturally in the Nordic regions where much Western European paperboard is sourced.

The forests use land that is largely unsuitable for agriculture – too rocky, too little soil, broken up by lakes and mountains, and with a cold climate. The forest industries take just enough trees to support the local economies, and allow natural regeneration combined with replanting suffi cient to ensure our forests are expanding not contracting. In Finland we have had laws for well over 100 years providing for greater forest growth than we use, as otherwise we would have no livelihood for our future generations.

Whereas starch-rich crops for bioplastics, such as corn, wheat or sugar cane, may compete for land with food production, forests do not. Nordic forests are self-sufficient in water and need no help in theway of artifi cial fertilisers or pesticides. As a result, they support varied ecosystems, remain a haven for wildlife, and provide opportunities for recreation – walking, picking berries, camping and much more.

Certification for forestry is now wellestablished, with PEFC and FSC providing accreditation along the entire chain of custody. Paperboard manufacturing is similarly well endowed with environmental and product safety standards such as ISO 14000 and ISO 22000; and many suppliers in the paperboard industry are open and transparent about their fibre sources and manufacturing processes through the Paper Profile scheme.

Within the paperboard, pulp and forest industries there is also a high degree of vertical integration. M-real’s main owner, Metsäliitto Cooperative, has approximately 130,000 forest owner members in Finland. Thanks to Metsä-Botnia, the pulp producer in the group, M-real is self-suffi cient in pulp supply, is not dependent on market pulp, and as a result we can ensure the consistency and purity of the raw material that goes into our products.

This means that M-real boards run well in converting, with fewer stoppages, and also that they are safer for use with sensitive products such as foods.

Paperboard has many advantages when it comes to the end of a package’s life. Like bioplastics, it does degrade and can be used for composting in the right circumstances. But paperboard has nearly as many lives as a cat before it becomes waste.

When it comes to recycling, paperboard is the ideal material. It is easily identifi able as a recyclate, whereas plastics, even with labels, are confusing to the consumer. Both domestic and commercial paper and board collections are well established throughout Europe. It’s easy to overlook the fact that without fresh fi bre paper and board being recovered, there would be no recycled products, as the fi bres can only be recycled four or fi ve times before they become too short and weak.

Even then, there’s still no need for recourse to landfi ll, as sludge containing the fi bres rejected in the recycling process can be used as a fertiliser or as feedstock for combined heat and power plants. Paper products that can’t be recycled due to contamination can also make an important part of the mix for waste-to-energy plants.

Packaging made from renewable resources, whether agricultural crops or natural forests, is to be preferred over fossil derivatives or non-renewable materials. Both contribute to the sequestration of CO2 while growing, which is kept locked up in the end products until they biodegrade or are combusted.

But while it’s still the United Nations’ International Year of Forests (2011), we feel it is vital to remind everyone that forests supply the original renewable and biodegradable packaging raw material, and one that thanks to good forest management can be claimed as CO2 neutral.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and may not be shared by this publication.


Olli Mäki Olli Mäki

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