Recycled fibre in paper and packaging can signal luxury and social responsibility, or something cheap and dirty. It depends on whom, and where, you ask.
Recycled fibre in paper and paperboard means different things to consumers in different countries. In Europe and parts of North America, recycled fibre is a good thing, a way of doing something responsible for the environment. Others are concerned with impurities like ink residue and mineral oils that are present in the recycled material. Asian consumers seem more worried about the origin of the wood fibres rather than with manufacturing practices.
“Environmentalists and various organisations are striving to increase the content of recycled fibre to ‘save the forests’,” says Håkan Ekström, ceo of Wood Resources International llc in Seattle. “Also, wholesalers and other intermediaries who sell paper sometimes demand a high recycled fibre content to reduce the risk of being branded eco-villains.”
Few consumers realise that virgin and recycled fibre have the same origin – trees. In fact, they are two kinds of fibres, dependent on each other, within the system of paper materials. If everyone stopped using virgin fibre the whole system would collapse, since the consumption of virgin fibre is the basis of the availability of recycled material.
When it comes to packaging, there has long been a trend to add more and more recycled fibre, although there are exceptions. These include food and luxury items like perfume, where virgin fibre is used to meet purity requirements and convey an impression of whiteness and quality. Furthermore, the fresh fibre offers more flexibility and resilience thus enabling more advanced structural design.
One of the downsides of increasing the level of recycled material in a packaging board is that it generally lowers the protective properties. To compensate for this, the producer will have to increase the grammage of the board to reach a given level of protection. The increased grammage means higher packaging weight and lower efficiency in the printing, packaging, filling and logistical processes.
Johan Carlsson, principal consultant at Pöyry, who has worked extensively with recycling and recycled fibre in the forest industry, says the arguments for or against recycled fibre are often the same.
“The environmental argument is used by advocates of recycled fibre and virgin fibre alike,” he says. “Some say that the carbon footprint, for instance, is lower for virgin fibre, while others claim the opposite. It all depends on how you measure it.”
Another important argument is that wood fibre, regardless of whether it is virgin or recycled, is a renewable raw material, and some manufacturers like to emphasise that they plant new trees for every package sold. In some countries, such as Sweden and Finland, there is a legal obligation for anyone who harvests forestland to regenerate the forest.
Ekström can see that the environment is an important consideration in markets like North America and large parts of Europe.
“Sometimes you can charge more for a product with a high recycled fibre content, even though the quality is actually lower,” he says. “These are often special products for niche markets where the environmental aspect is an important selling point.”
According to Carlsson, developments are largely cost-driven.
“The environmental argument is used to sell something or other, but production is governed more by the price of different fibre ranges and the availability of recycled and virgin fibre.”
It is hard to predict what the future trend will be. Ekström can see some strong pressure in many countries in Europe to add more recycled fibre.
At the same time, less recycled fibre is available, due in part to a decline in printed newspapers. A shorter supply of recycled fibre causes quality to fall and prices to rise, which would suggest that the percentage of virgin fibre is set to increase.
Wood fibre is tough and can be used five to seven times. However, it weakens the more times it is used, so it is often mixed with virgin fibre to produce the desired quality of paper or paperboard. Recycled fibre is mainly used in the production of newsprint, containerboard, hygiene paper and some types of paperboard.
Recycled fibre from newspapers, paper and paperboard is an important source of raw material for the forest industry. There is a considerable quality variation among recycled fibre, depending on its geographic origin and whether it is post-industrial or post-consumer waste. Globally, roughly half of the wood raw material used in paper and paperboard production comes from recycled paper. The rest is virgin fibre from the forest.
TEXT:THOMAS EKENBERG ILLUSTRATION: AGATA WIERZBICKA