Rising environmental awareness has become a megatrend, with many consumers changing their behavior to adopt a greener lifestyle. They consciously pay attention to the environmental impact of the products they are purchasing, and the packaging is also under critical scrutiny. Packaging made of recycled materials is often assumed to be a more sustainable choice which, based on many aspects, is not always factually true.
For a consumer, it is practically impossible to know the actual environmental impact or carbon footprint of each packaging, as there are several factors that need to be taken into consideration, for example, the packaging weight. Did you know that a paperboard packaging made of fresh fibres is lighter than a corresponding paperboard made of recycled fibres? This is because recycled fibres are weaker than fresh fibres and more of them are needed to make the packaging durable enough. It is surprising but true that the weight of a packaging made of fresh wood fibres could be only a half of that of a packaging made of recycled fibres. This has a big impact on its carbon footprint.
In addition, the type of energy used in the production of the paperboard plays a key role in the packaging's carbon footprint. In Nordic countries, the main energy format is renewable fossil free energy. According to Eurostat, the share of renewable energy of the total energy consumption was 43% in Finland and 56% in Sweden in 2019. Recycled boards are commonly produced in Central and Southern Europe using mainly fossil-based energy. For example, the corresponding percentage of renewable energy for Germany was only 17% and for Italy, 18%. The fossil-based energy used in recycled boards detrimentally increases their environmental impact.
To keep up the natural recycling loop, both fresh and recycled fibres are needed. The quality of the fibre weakens each time it is used so you need to add fresh fibres to the production loop to maintain the required paperboard strength properties. After use, fresh wood fibre-based paper and board are utilised as a valuable raw material for the production of new recycled paper and board materials. It is also worth considering that both fresh fibre and recycled fibre paperboards have their optimal end uses; fresh fibres are best suited for end uses requiring purity and high quality, and recycled fibre packaging is more suitable for less demanding packaging end uses.
There would not be any recycled fibres without fresh wood fibres, and without an input of new fibres into the recycling loop, the quality of the recycled pulp would deteriorate very quickly.