Green solutions

18 August 2020

In an environment where sustainability is no longer optional, corporations and consumers are putting packaging under the microscope like never before. Perfectly positioned to take advantage of this shift, paper is leading the way with packaging solutions for a circular economy. Irenie Forshaw talks to Heidi Brock, president and chief executive officer of the American Forest and Paper Association (AF&PA), about the organisation’s sustainability initiative and the impact Covid-19 has had on the paper sector.

As the demand for sustainable packaging grows, the paper industry is keen to highlight its eco-friendly credentials. In 2019, Europe reported a record high 85.8% recycling rate for its paper and cardboard packaging waste. It’s hardly surprising then that paper is being touted as a green alternative to single-use plastic and plays a central role in the latest innovative wrapping solutions.

A commitment to sustainability is at the heart of the American Forest and Paper Association (AF&PA), the national trade association of the paper and wood products industry in the US. “Paper recycling continues to be an environmental success story,” says president and CEO Heidi Brock. “This is a testament to consumer behaviour and an industry commitment to paper recycling.”

In the past decade, the US paper industry has achieved a consistently impressive recycling rate, meeting or exceeding 63% since 2009 – a figure that has nearly doubled since 1990, when the industry first set a paper recycling goal. For every tonne of paper that is recycled, an average of 3.3 cubic yards of landfill space is saved. “The paper and wood products industry are inherently circular in its supply chain, from the regeneration of renewable resources – trees – that supply fibre and enhance the environment, to recycling paper and packaging that are recovered and turned into new products,” says Brock. There is also circularity within the manufacturing process. “Water can be reused ten times throughout the pulp and paper mill process before it is treated in a waste water system and returned to the environment,” she explains. “In a similar fashion, recovered fibres can be reused at least seven times to make innovative products.”

For Brock, working collaboratively with different stakeholders is crucial. The AF&PA’s member  companies represent around 85% of the US pulp, paper, paper-based packaging and tissue products manufactured in the US. As a condition of membership, companies must commit to the sustainability goals. “Our industry is an important part of the broader circular economy, interacting with other industries, entities and individuals at all levels of society,” she says. “Increasing circularity in our economy builds resilience, generates new business opportunities and provides economic, environmental and social benefits.”

The pulp and paper industry depends on an integrated network. “If you think about the forest products industry supply chain for a moment, it’s extremely interconnected,” explains Brock. “From the forest and trees to the loggers in the woods, the trucks and rail moving raw material to mills – paper, packaging, tissue and wood product mills – to converters and printers finalising products, and a recycling system that collects material to make it into new products. Each of us has a role to play and I think partnerships will lead to new possibilities.”

Better practices, better planet

Nearly a decade ago, the AF&PA set out its Better Practices, Better Planet initiative, with a clear set of sustainability goals to work towards by 2020. These included reducing member companies’ pulp and paper mill water use by 12% and improving the rate of paper recovery for recycling to 70%. The final progress report is expected in 2021. “The initiative recognises the three essential pillars in sustainability – economic, environmental and social,” explains Brock. “All interdependent factors that collectively support the long-term viability, growth and improvement of our world.” One of the AF&PA’s commitments is to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. “We were among the first industries to take this voluntary action,” says Brock. “Our goal called for a 20% reduction in the intensity of GHG emissions by 2020 and I’m proud to say we’ve surpassed that, reducing GHG emissions by 23.2% from our 2005 baseline.”

In 2019, the AF&PA announced the paper recycling rate in the US was 66.2%, down slightly from 2018’s record 68.1% figure. The decline followed China’s implementation of recovered paper import restrictions. As the largest importer of US recovered paper, the decision had a significant impact on the US paper industry. Despite this, the figure remains within the range of the past few years’ recycling rates.

Progress has been no easy task and the organisation has been advocating for public policies every step of the way that will help it reach its targets. “AF&PA has built a track record on transparency, experience and trust to prevail on our members’ behalf in the federal, state and international policy areas,” says Brock. “We are pushing for the continued success for paper recycling at these levels. Efforts to ban, tax or restrict access to paper products discourage the use of products that are recyclable, compostable and reusable.”

The industry has faced many expensive regulatory challenges over the years. “US paper and wood product manufacturers have spent billions of dollars on regulatory compliance and are estimated to spend billions in new capital expenditures over the next decade,” explains Brock. “Measures that streamline the permitting process, and reduce the cost and uncertainty of regulations remain a top priority.” Brock emphasises that consumer perception is key to advancement. “We support the RECYCLE Act,” she says. “It recognises that educating consumers on the right ways to recycle is one of the best ways we can increase the quantity and quality of paper in the recycling stream.” The legislation proposes $75m for education over the course of five years and is supported by leading industry figures.

The growing trend towards sustainable, flexible packaging has led to a wide range of inventive paper packaging solutions, from beer bottles to chocolate wrappers. New techniques are constantly evolving to produce higher-quality paper products, while wasting less material. “There are so many examples of where paper is being used in innovative ways – food packaging, stronger paper bags, boxboard materials that deliver items to your door,” says Brock.

Every year the AF&PA hosts its Sustainability Awards, recognising the latest sustainability programmes and initiatives in the paper and wood products industry. Member companies submit their projects to categories that include water, safety, energy efficiency and innovation in sustainability. The winners are chosen by a third-party judging panel of sustainability experts from non-governmental organisations, academic institutions and trade associations. “It’s a highly competitive process,” explains Brock. “The award winners demonstrate our industry’s sustainability record and the contributions they are making to achieve the Better Practices, Better Planet 2020 goals. We are proud of these outstanding examples of sustainability leadership – whether it’s promoting sustainable forest management for landowners or saving energy and promoting workplace safety through replacement of lighting with LEDs in converting plants and warehouses.”

The innovation winner for 2019 was corrugated packaging company WestRock, for its development of EnShield Natural Kraft, a fully recyclable paperboard suitable for food service packaging that has the same level of oil and grease resistance as plastic alternatives. The company also won a second award for creating recovery boiler safety shields to protect operators working at Kraft paperboard and container-board mills.

The importance of change

The coronavirus pandemic has had a significant impact on the pulp and paper industry, with manufacturers having to adapt to meet the increased demand for tissue products. In March 2020, when the pandemic was still emerging in the US, the AF&PA reported that US tissue mills manufactured nearly 700,000t of tissue – more than any month since 2007 – when they began collecting monthly historical data.

This record high works out as more than 4lb of tissue for each US resident. “As our country and industry responds to the pandemic, AF&PA members and their workforces have risen to the occasion and operated in the safest way possible to deliver essential, everyday consumer goods,” says Brock. “I’m proud of the men and women of the paper and woods industry, who continue to do their part in response to demands for products like tissue, toilet paper and paper towels.”

As the world gradually starts to emerge from lockdown, safety remains a top priority for Brock and her colleagues. “Even as we begin a phased-in approach to reopening, we will continue to focus on employee safety and support our industry’s ability to produce essential products in response to Covid- 19,” she says. “These are products that protect and ship pharmaceutical and medical supplies, provide packaging for food and beverages, and advance good hygiene through paper towel and tissue products. Production of these products has perhaps never been more important than right now.”

Despite this focus on the immediate short-term demands the pandemic has brought, the AF&PA has other commitments it is keen to ensure do not get left behind. “There are several priorities that continue to be important as we navigate challenges related to Covid-19, including the carbon-neutrality of biomass,” explains Brock. “AF&PA has for many years advocated for science-based policies that acknowledge the carbon-neutrality of biomass and regulatory certainty to level the playing field with global competitors and the protection of rural American jobs.”

As well as being a leader in the latest policy information and research data about the forest products industry, the AF&PA has worked hard to provide a reliable source of Covid-19 information. “When there is so much uncertainty, leadership grounded in transparency, experience and trust will help us stay focused on the issues at hand,” says Brock. Contemplating the future, Brock stresses the importance of collaboration to bring about change. “Now more than ever, we must work in collaborative ways to overcome great challenges,” she says. “I have already witnessed how our industry can work together on issues such as workplace safety and sustainability, and I believe that we must continue to advance the industry through our work together.”

While the mammoth ten year Better Practices, Better Planet 2020 initiative may be drawing to a close, the AF&PA is showing no sign of slowing down and is already working on its next targets. “By next year, we expect to release a new set of sustainability goals for 2030, which will demonstrate our continued commitment to increasing circularity of our industry,” says Brock. Times have been testing, but paper has proved itself to be an essential material with the potential to transform packaging as we know it. “Moments like this help us to think differently and I believe the industry will continue to innovate as we adapt to new market demands ahead of us,” says Brock. “All the while, I know our industry will hold true to its values and remain committed to applying sustainable and voluntary business practices across the supply chain.”

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