Taking sustainability to the next level – Sustainable packaging in forest products value chain

The forest industry is known for sustainable bio-based products, and especially different packaging end-uses have been a hot topic for the industry. As sustainability becomes more and more important throughout the companies’ value chains, also packaging used in the forest products supply chain is increasingly under interest.

What is the status of the packaging used by forest industry companies themselves?

For forest industry companies, the packaging of different wood, paper, board, tissue, and pulp products has been flying outside the sustainability radar. Fossil-based materials, especially plastics, are widely used in the forest products supply chain, thus a lot of room for improvement exists sustainability-wise. As forest products’ packaging is mainly transport packaging between large industrial players, there are also only a few sustainability requirements from the customer’s side.

What is sustainable packaging?

Packaging sustainability cannot be assessed separately from the packed product, thus the context of packaging should be used as the starting point for sustainability evaluation. The environmental impact of the packed product is considerably higher than the impact of packaging. Therefore, the most important sustainability aspects are the packaging’s ability to protect the product, enable sustainable logistics, and facilitate communication about the product and packaging.  The Soras curve describes the balancing between under- and overpacking, thus illustrating the relative magnitude of the environmental impact of under- and overpackaging.

After securing a certain level of packaging functionality, the sustainability of the packaging materials should be evaluated. Ever-growing global resource consumption makes the circular economy one of the most important packaging environmental themes. In addition, especially in the EU, developing environmental regulations are guided by the circular economy principles. To comply with circular economy principles:

  1. Amount packaging should be optimized, as illustrated in the Soras curve
  2. Packaging materials circulation must be maximized, eliminating the materials leakage from the system to landfills or incineration, or in the worst case, to nature.

Another important theme is replacing fossil-based materials with renewables. Renewable materials from sustainably managed feedstocks mitigate long-term natural resource depletion and climate change. Renewable feedstocks are naturally replenished via biological reproduction and remove carbon from the atmosphere during biomass growth.

What are the next steps towards more sustainable packaging?

Until today the sustainability developments have been focusing on light-weighting, recycling, and protecting the product to the maximum. As companies will face more comprehensive sustainability requirements, also further increasing the packaging sustainability will be on the agenda in the future. To fulfill the sustainability requirements towards the product packaging also in the long-term, the key items to focus on are:

  1. Functionality – Does the packaging fulfill its function to protect, enable logistics and communicate?
  2. Recyclability – Is the packaging recyclable with existing recycling infrastructure to new materials?
  3. Renewable – Maximizing the renewable content in packaging, i.e. minimizing the use of fossil-based materials.

Examples from the industry

Sofidel, an Italian tissue producer, as part of its ambitious sustainable growth strategy has decided to start heavily decreasing the use of conventional plastics in the company’s production.  Plastic reduction is achieved via replacing plastics with kraft paper packaging for some existing products, using recycled or bio-based plastics, and reducing the plastic packaging thickness,

Walki, a Finnish multi-layer laminate, and protective packaging material producer, also has a strategic focus on creating sustainable and circular packaging solutions. Together with UPM,  the companies have been developing a fully wood-based paper reel wrapping material, combining paper with polyethylene produced from tall oil. In addition, UPM has been trialing to reduce the total amount of plastic in the wrapping material by 20%.

On the author: Samuel Leppänen, Consultant, has 3 years of experience in management consulting and forest-based industries. Recently, Samuel completed his master’s thesis on “Requirements for Sustainable Packaging in the Forest Products Value Chain

Vision Hunters provides strategic advisory services for the forest industry and energy sectors. We assist leadership teams in making the smartest strategic choices to improve the outcome of their company in the future. We are highly experienced and result-oriented and have advised many of the leading companies in our industry.