Although packaging only contributes a small part of a product’s overall environmental impact, it has a big part to play in minimising this impact. If a package doesn’t do its job properly and the product is damaged, the entire product – and all the resources used to produce it – can go to waste, resulting in a far bigger environmental impact than caused by the packaging alone.

With tougher legislation, increasingly well-informed consumers and demands from investors to improve their environmental performance, brand owners and converters have a tough crowd to please. “Many organisations have set themselves quite challenging targets, for example reducing their use of virgin plastic, increasing their use of recycled materials and cutting the overall environmental impact of their operations,” says Anne Uusitalo, Director, Product Safety & Sustainability at Metsä Board. “Minimising the carbon footprint of their packaging is one way they can take steps to do this, by cutting what are called their Scope 3 emissions, which are the indirect emissions from their value chain.”

To enhance their sustainability credentials and live up to their promises, brand owners and converters are being far more selective in their packaging material choices. But to make informed decisions they need accurate and credible information about the environmental impact of the different materials available. “Companies are more and more opting for sustainably sourced, recyclable materials like paperboard when designing their packaging. We can help them by providing trustworthy, fact-based data and accurate, transparent calculations on the overall impact of different materials,” explains Lari Oksala, Sustainability Specialist, Metsä Board.

Sorting fact from fiction

It has always been important to Metsä Board to rely on facts when sharing information with customers. “There are a lot of misconceptions about packaging; for example, consumers often assume that a brown package made from recycled fibres is more ‘eco-friendly’ than one made from fresh fibres. You have to look at the bigger picture: the energy used to manufacture recycled grades often comes from fossil sources, whereas boards made from virgin fibres are typically produced using a high proportion of renewable energy.”

Choosing board made from fresh fibres also provides the opportunity to lighten the load on the environment without compromising packaging performance. Switching to lighter-weight grades has a positive impact on the ecological footprint of the packaging by reducing raw material consumption and transportation weights. “We have proven this in tests with cosmetics packaging. Thanks to its lighter weight and the high amount of fossil-free energy used in its production, packaging made from a fresh fibre board manufactured at our Äänekoski mill in Finland had a 50% smaller carbon footprint than packaging made from a paperboard produced with recycled fibres,” Anne says.  

Careful calculations provide transparency for customers

As part of its sustainability services, Metsä Board can provide customers with accurate information about the carbon footprint of its paperboard products, based on the CEPI Ten Toes methodology, which breaks down the carbon footprint of a product into ten ‘toes’. “Customers can use this information to calculate the overall emissions of their value chain,” Lari explains.

The Sustainability Services offering can also help find the most ecological packaging choice from a range of alternatives. “By combining reliable data from Metsä Board’s own manufacturing processes and data from trustworthy third-party sources on alternative materials such as plastics and metals, we can show customers exactly how the options compare,” explains Lari. “This provides a transparent and objective answer to the question of what difference switching packaging materials would make. For example, in one case we have shown that switching from a mixed-material package to one made purely from Metsä Board paperboard would reduce the packaging’s environmental impact by 90%.”

Metsä Board can also perform Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) on other environmental categories in addition to a material’s carbon footprint, in other words its global warming potential. These can be used to assess a material’s eutrophication potential, acidification potential, water consumption and fossil energy use. LCAs performed by Metsä Board, whether reported separately or used in material comparisons, comply with the ISO 14040 and ISO 14044 international standards.

“At the end of the day, as a responsible materials supplier it is our job to provide our customers with accurate, unbiased information so that they can make better informed and more sustainable choices when evaluating the various packaging material alternatives available to them,” Anne concludes.