Fibre, research and future thoughts

24 November 2020

As a spectator one is granted the benefit of a wider field of vision, which in the case of cartons means that an outsider might see a number of trends that are connected through their use of cartonboard or corrugated board. Whether that might be the use of corrugated or carton in supplying the rising demand in E-commerce packaging or the place of paper and board in the circular economy, through to the overall impact of coronavirus on the sector, it is apparent that corrugated board is a key figure in a number of different fields. It takes an expert to explain the significance of what is being seen, and fortunately Magnus Renman, in his role as R&D Director at DS Smith a leading provider of sustainable packaging solutions worldwide operating across 34 countries and employing around 30,000 people, is well placed to provide such insight.

Renman started with the important point that when discussing paper and its place in the circular economy, it is vital to consider single use plastics. “Through the ongoing reduction of single use plastics there is a developing theme in the EU of the opportunity for fibre and alternative materials to show what they can do. With the ban of drinking straws and cutlery and other single use catering plastic products taking place recently, and the move towards reduction of plastic shopping bags, this is an opportunity for fibre-based alternatives to be considered. In the wider theme of moving towards the circular economy the EU has stated as its intention by 2030 that 100% of packaging put into the market must be (widely) reusable or recyclable. Paper-based packaging, having a recycling rates in excess of 80% in Europe, will be a strong alternative for replacing some of the plastics we are using today. “

With a closed loop packaging recycling model, and as Europe’s largest cardboard and paper recycler, environmental and sustainable developments are incredibly important to DS Smith meaning they are perfectly positioned to contribute and bring value in this area.

If sustainability is one of the key topics of the moment in 2020, coronavirus is arguably the most pervasive. Renman , who lives in Sweden, was asked if there had been much difference in rates on uptake of e-commerce packaging such as had been seen in countries in the EU which had locked down entirely, due to Sweden not doing so. “There has been an upturn in on-line shopping recently also in Sweden as in many countries across Europe. You would have seen even in Sweden that the malls were quite empty during the worst period here in April and May. Now, people are coming back again into shops and stores. But it's still not at the same level as pre-Covid-19. Definitely the UK, being the third biggest ecommerce market in the world has seen a huge lift in figures with 89% of UK consumers saying they will continue to shop online at same level or more post-lockdown according a recent survey we carried out. You see similar trends across Europe as a whole, with 64% of Europeans saying they shopped more online during Covid-19, and 89% saying they will continue to shop as much online or even more post-lockdown*”

Turning to fibre, the discusion highlighted the importance in the field of recycling, “As you know we are a big collector of paper for recycling, Europe’s largest cardboard & paper recyclers. In Europe it is also worth noting that 75% or 36.5m tonnes of papers entering the packaging loop are made from recycled fibres, so there is a big use of recycled fibers when it comes to corrugated packaging. Depending on collection infrastructures there is a varying quality and a mix of fibres that needs to be sorted, pre-or post-collection, and turned into recycled papers for packaging. One thing for sure is that when paper is collected separately from other materials for recycling, such as plastic, it provides for the best quality recycling. Of the different fibres that are coming in there are attempts to use not just the wooden fibres but other fibres from other sources - but the strength to cost ratio will limit their usage. “

One recent development that Renman described was the work with Aquapack Polymers which is a Polyvinyl Alcohol that is easy to recycle, “It can go through our systems and it will be picked up in our normal waste systems and is biodegradable as well. And that will be one way for us to replace harder to recycle plastic with something that has similar barrier properties but is much better from a recyclability, pulpability and circular economy point of view.“

Renman continues “As an R&D team we are fortunate that there are a lot of innovators in the space of replacing plastic components but the challenge is to carefully select the right materials that maximises the packaging solution in both performance and circularity, both are important for our customers. “

On the subject of performance Renman was asked to expand a little on product performance and some of the guidelines he was involved in.

“Food contact regulation in the EU is a major area that we follow closely. We have done extensive work in DS Smith over the last 10 years with the different paper products that we are producing and we use industry leading institutes for third party testing - we do this to make sure all our products are safe for the consumer and everyone that deals with our packaging. We have a product safety network within our company that meets regularly to review what can we do better and ensure that our processes are developed in a way that we design and manufacture the paper packaging that is fit for purpose. Key for us is producing packaging that is both sustainable and capable of providing the performance that our customers and consumers demand. We also see collaboration as key, collaborating with customers, logistics, brand owners, retailers, consumers, policy makers and industry bodies to ensure packaging solutions are fit for the needs of all stakeholders.“

“Whether it’s through our recycling collections for our customers or through deliveries by other collectors straight to our paper mills - we recycle papers from retailers, printers, offices, municipalities and a wide range of industry sectors. We use those fibres as part of our rigorous recycling and paper making processes, the output of which is then tested for its purity using industry leading testing labs to ensure that our finished packaging papers are food safe.

There are packaging solutions which are heavily laminated especially in carton board applications and they typically need to be recycled in a special mill. We are working hard to develop alternatives that can replace hard-to-recycle plastics – allowing for more packaging products to be easier recycled in traditional large-scale standard recycling mills

Part of the work in making sure that more and more packaging gets recycled is to identify the right methods of recycling collections. We know, from all the different collection methods we receive material from, that source segregated paper and card provides the best quality material for recycling. We are participating in a cross-industry initiative called 4Evergreen which is focused on proposing ways to increase recyclability of paper fibres across Europe, where a segregated collection system is one part of improved recyclability and consequently a better circular economy solution.

A typical mill will take on recycled papers from a variety of sources, a large portion of which might be empty corrugated retail packaging for example. Within that you will encounter laminated materials which are not paper fibres. This is quite normal for corrugated board, and we can handle a certain amount of non-paper fibres in our standard mill process if it is not too heavy lamination. From a material point of view its very manageable in low percentages in our processes. Of course, ideally, we would want zero contamination in our recycling streams but we realize we do not work in a perfect world, so our processes have to be robust enough to deal with different scenarios – without compromising quality or performance of our finished paper products. “

Renman then discussed the main trends he saw in the market. “Research and Development which typically works with future applications and technologies is about delivering not only for the next but also for the now. At DS Smith we are focused on helping to solve some of society’s biggest sustainability challenges around packaging, like coffee cups, whilst also keeping one eye firmly on the future. We have 700 designers who can create bespoke designs for our customers every day, but we need to look at what is the next big thing that we can provide to our customers.”

“So, we spend a fair bit of time trying to understand what we're seeing from the market, customers as well as our partners and turning this into our R&D programmes in order to meet the ever changing demands of consumers, and consequently our customers. Right now, it’s fair to say a lot of focus is on replacing hard to recycle material and single use plastics, ensuring that replacement opportunities are both more sustainable and fit for purposes. But it’s not just about replacement or substitution, it has to be about using less resource as well as be supporting a Circular economy. How can we develop performance packaging solutions that use less materials and have less pull on our planet’s resources? They are the type of questions we are attempting to answer every day, whilst keeping up with ever changing consumers demands and lifestyles.”

Within this framework, there is a balance between how far out we can look for these signals and react to potential future trends in order to have solutions ready should they become current market needs.”

As Renman concludes, “You try to look out as far as you can, but at the same time you need to consider the here and now as well. Is the priority to apply something new for tomorrow or is there a demand that needs meeting right now. Both equally as important so you need to get the balance right. You have to spend the right time in the two areas continuously, setting out in a direction based on the insights gathered, but challenging that you are going the right way every day. Are we solving the right problems? What about that information we heard yesterday, how does that fit into the bigger picture? Do we need to change something right now, or do we need to develop a longer term approach? All these questions were big considerations when building our new Now and Next Sustainability Strategy. A key part of that is closing the loop through better design. For now, by 2023 we will manufacture 100% recyclable or reusable packaging, but with an eye on the future, by 2030 we are aiming for all our packaging to be recycled or reused. The two work in tangent together.


DS Smith and Aquapak Target Hard to Recycle Plastic Packaging Reduction with Biodegradable Alternative

DS Smith and Aquapak, a developer of biodegradable polymer, are teaming up to develop the next generation of packaging solutions. Working together, the companies hope to provide sustainable fibre based packaging solutions that will replace hard to recycle packaging made from combined materials such as cardboard and plastic.

After a period of pilot trials the partnership will now begin developing practical applications. This includes a range of fibre-based packaging where traditional plastic films can be replaced with Aquapak’s Hydropol, a biodegradable and water-soluble polymer that will help to improve the recycling process.

Nick Thompson, Materials Development Director for DS Smith commented: “We are proud to be partnering with Aquapak in developing a fully recyclable packaging alternative to non-recyclable plastics. Aquapak’s technological advances in novel barrier chemistries combined with our broad range of packaging applications can help us work together to solve many of the most pressing packaging recyclability issues. The impact will be immediate, and our aims are aligned in bringing a much greater circularity to recyclable packaging products.”

Mark Lapping, CEO, Aquapak Polymers said: “It is exciting to see opportunities for our innovative polymer coming to fruition through our partnership with DS Smith. Both

organisations are committed to eliminating plastic-pollution at the source and by working together, we can help speed up the roll out of recyclable, biodegradable packaging that is designed for the cir

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