High-quality recycling loops are best for circular economy

On Europe’s journey towards a circular economy, high-quality recycling is essential. In fact, the recycling of fiber-based packaging is one of the best examples. If you put your used paper products in the right recycling bin, you can count on them finding their way to a facility that recycles these materials so they can be reused many times to make cereal boxes, boxes to pack your online deliveries. transport , newspapers and a whole host of other useful products.

Currently, approximately 75 percent of the raw materials used for the fibers in our packaging come from recycling. The rest comes from sustainably managed forests. Our packaging helps keep fossil fuels in the ground and thus contributes to making our planet greener. This is why fiber-based materials are widely recognized as one of the most sustainable choices available for packaging.

The EU’s packaging waste regulations: an important opportunity to improve recycling systems

At Fiber Packaging Europe, we believe the upcoming Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR) will play a key role in making recycling even better. We now have the opportunity to set an ambitious target of 90% separate collection for all EU Member States. Separate collection here means transferring materials from your paper and cardboard bin to the recycling plant. There is no better way to ensure that our packaging reaches recyclers after it has been used, and it will further increase the already remarkable recycling rate of 81.5 percent (Eurostat, 2020), which is higher than plastic, metal by volume and glass together.

Where we see a risk in the PPWR is that the regulations distort the definition of ‘high-quality’ recycling by limiting it only to what it calls ‘closed loops’. A closed loop means that a cereal box must be recycled into another cereal box. When fibers are allowed to be recycled universally into any paper and board application and product, it is effective, resource efficient and reduces CO2 emissions by avoiding transport (to that cereal box factory). Most importantly, it is a good and easy way to keep increasing the recycling rate.

Is sponsored by Fiber packaging Europe

Don’t Twist the Loop: Why Material Loops Make the Most Sense for Paper

But don’t just take it from us. We spoke to seasoned recycling industry professionals represented by Fiber Packaging Europe to hear their first-hand views on closed loops, the real challenges recyclers face and what can be done to overcome them.

Does circular recycling play a role for fiber-based packaging? John Melia, director of strategy development and innovation at DS Smith’s Recycling Division, is very clear on this point. “Closed-loop recycling of paper packaging would make no sense in a mature, well-functioning recycling system built on a thriving market for secondary raw materials. It would disrupt the market, reduce the quality and lifespan of fibers and increase the use of fossil fuels in the supply chain. This would be a major step down from the high-quality recycling system we have today.”

Recycling systems based on ‘material cycles’, on the other hand, ensure that the raw materials we obtain from recycling processes are used in a much more versatile way. They can be used to make a wide variety of sustainable products that we use every day. The system works, and there is already a unique, thriving market for secondary raw materials in the fiber industry in Europe. In 2020, 56 million tons of collected ‘Paper for Recycling’ were converted into equally high-quality new paper and cardboard products.

When fibers reach the right recyclers, they have the resources to get the job done

So how can you make a high-quality recycling system even better? It all starts with collecting.

“All fibre-based packaging is recyclable if the material is sent through collection and sorting to the right type of recycling plant,” explains Michel Willems, European Business Coordinator at Smurfit Kappa Recycling. ‘Separate’ collection systems, where non-paper materials such as plastic, metal and glass are collected separately from used paper products, can make it much easier to sort the material and send it to the right recycling facilities. When it comes to fiber-based packaging products thrown away by households, there is an opportunity to further increase recycling rates.

As a general principle, the more homogeneous a fibre-based waste stream is, the easier it is to find the right plant to carry out the recycling. Nevertheless, the great advantage of fiber packaging recycling is that a homogeneous waste stream is not an absolute necessity for most paper-based products. You can easily collect most of them in the same container, for example at home. Such a stream, after standard quality checks, is ready for immediate recycling in many factories across Europe,” says Michel.

“Our business is built around reducing the environmental impact of packaging on the planet, improving supply chains for billions of people. We have an excellent, powerful cardboard recycling system with the highest recycling rate of any packaging material in Europe. Corrugated cardboard packaging has a very special place because it has always been the most recycled product. We recycle a box at least 25 times in its lifespan. In the end, it just returns to nature. Our environmentally friendly product is 100 percent renewable, recyclable and biodegradable,” says Michel.

For John Melia, this point is much more important for a successful circular economy than looking at changing recycling systems. “The EU should focus on what we know will drive paper recycling rates even higher: better recycling infrastructure, including greater separation of recycling raw materials through separate collection of municipal waste,” he says. “We in the industry are doing our part, but reaching the full potential of the fiber recycling system will only be possible through government policies that focus on what we know will make a difference.”

So if we want to complete the circular economy cycle, let’s listen to the recyclers themselves. Let’s build on the high-quality recycling that already exists to build a greener Europe with the packaging products we know to be sustainable.

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