Opportunities and challenges in the recycling of fibre-based packaging


From plastic to paper, it seems a logical step to make packaging more sustainable. This shift has been clearly visible for several years. In addition, companies with sustainable packaging goals earn a lot of goodwill with consumers. And because of its high recycling rate (90 per cent in the Netherlands and 92 per cent in Belgium), paper and cardboard packaging seems to make a major contribution to the circular packaging chain. But are paper and cardboard really the end solution? Fost Plus and KIDV call for a more realistic and fact-based approach. 

This came up at the KIDV and Fost Plus seminar 'The future of fibre-based packaging in the circular economy' on 17 November. The two organisations invited several experts to discuss the current state of collection, sorting and recycling of paper and cardboard in the Netherlands, Belgium and Europe. The second part of the seminar revolved around a lively discussion between Karine Van Doorsselaar (University of Antwerp), Rob Hoitink (Nestlé), Peter Hengesbach (Stora Enso) and Chris Bruijnes (KIDV). In total, some 400 parties representing the entire fibre-based packaging value chain participated in the seminar, either in person at the beautiful Antwerp Zoo or online. 


Ambition: towards 100 per cent recycling

Coen Bertens of the Packaging Waste Fund (Afvalfonds Verpakkingen) explained the Dutch practice and results. In the Netherlands, in recent years, the stream of collected waste paper and cardboard has grown by around 4 per cent each year. The share of packaging in this stream has risen sharply, partly because more products are being ordered online. Drink cartons, however, do not count in this stream. The recycling rate of drink cartons (31 per cent) is lagging behind other streams. "That will improve when a separate recycling target for drink cartons is introduced in 2023," Bertens expects.

Fost Plus has the ambition to recycle 100 per cent of the packaging on the Belgian market by 2025. “Today, Belgium is at 92 per cent for paper and cardboard and 73 per cent for drink cartons,” said Mik Van Gaever of Fost Plus. The Belgian approach to reaching that goal is based on design-for-recycling guidelines, which puts companies on track to design packaging in such a way that it fits well into the existing sorting and recycling infrastructure. Thanks to the activity-based calculation of the Green Dot rate, compatible packaging benefits from lower charges. "Ultimately, through optimisation and innovation of packaging design, we want to get to a 100 per cent score. Moreover, we are also looking at the impact of reuse on the flow of on-the-go packaging."


Packaging design with the aim of improving recyclability

The design-for-recycling guidelines in the Netherlands ('translated' into the KIDV Recyclecheck for paper and cardboard packaging) and Belgium are very similar, according to Annemarie Abbeel (Fost Plus). However, each country has its own criteria for paper and cardboard packaging. In Belgium, the fibre component must be at least 85 per cent, while in the Netherlands it is at least 50 per cent. For recycling rates (high in both countries), such differences do not matter much. "But more and more alternative fibre packaging is emerging," says Abbeel. "However, it remains to be seen what their actual recovery rate will be. That could affect the overall recycling results."

The reason for this hesitation is that the variety of fibre-based packaging is growing, and not all types perform as well on circularity. The Netherlands and Belgium score well at 90 and 92 per cent respectively, compared to European averages of around 75 per cent. The goal of CEPI, which represents the interests of the European paper industry, is to increase the overall recycling rate of fibre-based packaging to 90 per cent by 2030. To this end, the 4evergreen Alliance has been created, a cross-industry alliance with the goal of optimising fibre-based packaging circularity and climate performance. In order to do this, the partners have set four interim targets for 2025, as programme director Susanne Haase explained. 

One of them is an evaluation protocol for paper mills to assess the recyclability of their products. In the near future, it will even allow for test results to be quantified and compared. "With this tool, we will be able to clarify which fibre-based materials can be recycled with which technology. It will give the industry insight into how to make packaging more sustainable from the design phase," Haase said. The evaluation protocol will then contribute to the development of specific circularity guidelines and improved collection and sorting. 

Interested in learning more about the recycling of fibre-based packaging, consumer trends and European regulation? Click here to listen to the seminar. Or join us next time!