The Carton Revolution

7 January 2020

Carton is undergoing a green revolution. From replanting forests to recycling, the industry is doing a huge amount in the fight against climate change. Andrea Valentino talks to Jori Ringman, director general of the Confederation of European Paper Industries, about what the industry has been up to, and how new technology is helping make carton and board the cleanest sector in town

Carton has a long history. As far back as 1879, an enterprising factory owner in Brooklyn die-ruled, cut and scored paperboard into a single folded carton. By 1906, the technology had spread across the US, and grocers were selling milk in what they quaintly termed ‘paper bottles’ from San Francisco to Los Angeles. To make the invention waterproof, wax was applied to the paper. Not that the milk carton caught on immediately: until the 1960s, consumers were reluctant to give up their trusty glass bottles.


From these humble beginnings, of course, carton has evolved into one of the most fundamental pillars of the packaging universe. The global market for folding cartons reached a colossal $184 billion in 2018, and is expected to grow another 6% each year between now and 2023. No wonder industry observers are so buoyant about the future. According to Smithers, a research firm, the corrugated packaging market alone is “growing faster than expected, confounding some predictions that forecast a slowdown in corrugated consumption.” This drift is shadowed by carton generally, which is building on its dominance in tertiary packaging to play a major role in retail.


Even so, the industry hardly has everything its own way. As the planet warms and climate change becomes an existential worry for consumers and governments alike, carton and board manufacturers are under huge pressure to create their products with greater sustainability in mind. Things are made especially challenging by the long journeys cartons are expected to withstand from the factory floor to the hospital or supermarket shelf. Yet the situation is far from hopeless. From encouraging reforestation to pushing for recycling, there are huge opportunities for manufacturers thoughtful enough to try.


Carton the waste away


When Jori Ringman started his career in the paper and packaging industry 15 years ago, sustainability was not a top priority. Global warming was still a few years from becoming a serious worry, and what environmental legislation did exist was woefully inadequate. “In Europe, we had very old-fashioned waste legislation,” remembers Ringman, now director general of the Confederation of European Paper Industries (CEPI), adding that in the worse cases, regulators even banned companies from reusing any leftover waste material.


How things have changed. From robust EU directives to the work of individual manufacturers, the packaging industry is leading the way in sustainable development. This is especially true when it comes to cartons. If you buy a box of cereal in Europe nowadays, around 33% of the material will have been completely recycled, a figure that rises to near 100% in certain cases. The statistics in other areas are even more impressive, with the industry in Europe successfully cutting water use by over 60%. As Ringman puts it, what started out as a snowball ended up as an “avalanche” and sustainability is now in “the DNA” of carton manufacturers.


Yet even as these changes continue to transform the industry, Ringman says that the speed and scale of progress over the past decade and a half has been astonishing. When it comes to carton, though, this rush to sustainability is just shadowing the growth of the industry as a whole. Long an established part of tertiary packaging, carton and board are witnessing similar growth in the retail sector, to the extent that they now represent a full 43% of the total packaging industry, or $369 billion a year.


To put it another way, as carton becomes more widespread, the industry has to think more carefully about its environmental impact. Even so, a rise in demand is just one part of the puzzle. As Ringman explains, customer pressure is prodding change along too. “People have become more aware,” he says. “They see the evidence of [climate change] happening in their everyday life and in the news. This is partly to do with the fact that we have increased our living standards, so we can afford to think of things around us, not just about us and our immediate survival.” This is hardly surprising. As temperatures push up to planet-busting levels, and climate change is on the lips of every self-respecting journalist, consumers expect carton manufacturers to get on board.


Supply chain gang


If you’re only used to cartons as the boxes you absentmindedly pick up in the supermarket, it is easy to forget the immense process that actually got them there. From wood in a forest, via manufacturers and converters to factories that make the finished products, the carton supply chain is a tangled and multifaceted engine. In other words, if carton manufacturers really want to be environmentally sustainable, they have to attack waste at every level of the supply chain, a process Ringman calls the ‘circular economy’.


As Ringman explains, this starts right at the beginning of the production cycle. “CEPI has really been the driver, at least in Europe, to push for certifications in forestry management.” This enthusiasm is certainly reflected in the statistics. According to Pro Carton, an industry body, European forests increased by 512,000 hectares in the five years to 2010 alone. Today the continent boasts 30% more forest than it did in the 1950s. This physical growth is bolstered, Ringman continues, by a robust “chain of custody” to prove that carton “is genuinely coming from sustainable forests.”


Another area of work involves recycling, something Ringman suggests begins with customers themselves. “Consumers have to understand what they need to do with the material,” he says. “They need to understand that it belongs to the paper stream in the bin.” From there, Ringman continues, collection schemes have to be sturdy enough to get “the best quality material” to recycling mills quickly, while recyclers themselves need the knowhow to separate out reusable fibres from their useless cousins. It goes without saying, of course, that these efficiencies can only be achieved by working with stakeholders across the industry – including government officials. For his part, Ringman highlights a new EU directive on single-use plastics that is pushing manufacturers towards a more sustainable future.


This is part of a far wider trend: if sharpening the supply chain is one way of making carton more sustainable, rethinking the underlying technology can help too. It starts from the design, Ringman says, “so you can make sure that whatever material you work with is already recycled, or you use fibres so that it stays recyclable”. Manufacturers and converters have clearly taken this to heart: though the fibres found in your typical retail carton cannot be recycled indefinitely, they can be reused over 25 times, not bad for a material that is ultimately derived from natural ingredients.


More fundamentally the carton industry is looking to move away from using unsustainable plastics in its carton designs. This has long been a problem: even if the bulk of a carton is made from decomposable paper, plastic has typically been used to strengthen the finished product. But fortunately, Ringman says, this is changing.


A typical example is the work of Metsä Board, based near Helsinki, which unveiled a new range of eco-friendly boards earlier this year. Crucially, the new design avoids plastic altogether. The company explains that, instead, it relies on “pure, fresh fibres sourced from sustainably-managed Northern European forests.” These trends are gradually seeping into the market at large. In August, for example, it was announced that the new Football Manager computer game would be shipped in boxes made of “100% recycled fibre”.


Environmental costs?


As industry experts will be quick to point out, carton does a whole lot more than simply get a product from A to B. From carrying advertising to offering health advice, even small cartons carry out a whole range of tasks. But probably the most vital job of any carton is to keep its contents safe. That is especially important when it comes to sensitive products like pharmaceuticals or food. With supply chains getting ever longer, and the consequences of faulty packaging carrying serious health risks, manufacturers have to be incredibly careful that its cartons are robust enough to cope.


Nor is this merely a hypothetical worry. According to a study by the University of Texas School of Pharmacology, pharmaceutical companies typically spend $4 on indirect costs – think lost sales or new product shipments – for every $1 of lost product from faulty or compromised packaging. In other words, even as politicians and manufacturers chatter about the sustainability of carton, that means little if eco-friendly designs fail to pass more practical tests. No wonder, then, that Ringman is keen to emphasise that “being expected” to keep products fresh is a hallmark of the industry, and manufacturers have been able to adapt.


This optimism is probably justified, not least given the gallop of new technology. Apart from cutting plastic from carton, manufacturers are starting to develop board in more sophisticated ways too. In the pharmaceutical industry, for example, anti-counterfeiting measures like QR authentication are now all the rage. In supermarkets, meanwhile, cartons are increasingly being shipped with low-migration inks, which prevent unpleasant or dangerous smells and chemicals from seeping into the food. “Printing technologies have improved, which has a big impact on the materials,” summarises Ringman. “I am certain that the industry will change a lot in the near future.”


Not that the horizon seems entirely spotless. As Ringman accepts, combining new technology and environmentalism might make perfect sense, but “we are not always the cheapest choice,” he says. “The competitiveness of board and paper, in general, is not a given, because we cannot go as low in prices as other materials. I sometimes believe that this is because we have internalised most of the external costs in our sector, whereas in many competing materials, those external costs are not so visible.”


The carton and board industry is obviously conscious of these pressures, and Ringman admits that the contradictory pulls of environmentalism and profit margins can sometimes “work in opposition” to industry needs. All the same, you get the impression that if CEPI had to choose between the planet and its wallet, it would lump for the planet every time. As Ringman notes, the catastrophic consequences of plastic production mean that carton has a fundamental role to play in the future of packaging, regardless of price.


In the same vein, though he is far from complacent, Ringman believes that the carton industry will be on the frontline of environmental protection for years to come. “We have a great track record,” he says. “But we need to keep on doing more and progressing.” In particular, Ringman highlights the huge potential of ‘abasement technology’ – that could help cut carbon dioxide emissions even as carton and board manufacturers take the lead in other fields. If only those early carton-makers, with their primitive wax covers, could come back and see that.

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