Cartonboard: leading player in the circular economy

Winfried Muehling, General Manager of Pro Carton, the European Association of Carton and Cartonboard manufacturers, comments on the recent Graz University of Technology (TU Graz) research which revealed that fibres used in fibre-based packaging materials such as paper, board and cartonboard can be recycled more than 25 times with little to no loss of integrity. Here, he reflects on what the findings mean for the packaging industry and the exciting implications for brands and other stakeholders in the value chain.

The findings of the Recyclability of Cartonboard and Carton report conducted by Dr Rene Eckhart, Senior Scientist at TU Graz, has helped to endorse the environmental credibility of fibre-based packaging materials.

In particular, the study has resolutely drawn a line under a common myth that fibre-based packaging can only be recycled four to seven times before it loses integrity. Far from it, the report reveals that cartonboard fibres can be recycled up to 25 times with no negative effect on its mechanical properties, including its crush resistance and strength[1].

Leading by example

The research helps to demonstrate cartonboard’s crucial role in the circular economy but also illustrates how the industry’s most ecological packaging substrate can improve the sustainability credentials of businesses and brands.

Cartonboard is increasingly preferred by consumers in Europe thanks to its environmental credentials and recyclability. Consumers understand and trust in the cartonboard recycling system. While there are still different collection and sorting processes in place across Europe, each country has a credible recycling infrastructure for paper and cartonboard in place, evidenced by its recycling rate of 84.2% – one of the highest recycling rates amongst the packaging materials.[2]

In fact, the growing popularity and trust among consumers for cartonboard’s credentials was underlined by Pro Carton’s European Consumer Survey in 2021[3], which found that the majority of consumers (75%) would choose cartonboard/cardboard packaging over plastic if they were buying the same product.

This trust has led to more opportunities for converters and packaging designers in new areas. We have already seen cartonboard used as a reliable, safe, and hygienic packaging option for a wide range of products, such as its use in Nestlé’s ‘Smarties Giant Hexatube’.

This was a one-piece construction that was made entirely from recyclable cartonboard with an integrated cartonboard lid, similar to the iconic round tube, but this time produced without any plastic elements. Such was its impact in terms of brand appeal that it received the Public Award in Pro Carton’s European Carton Excellence Awards.

Additionally, the Smarties ‘all in one’ multipack solution was made from 100% cartonboard, negating the need for shrink film or sticky labels.

Cartonboard is being used increasingly as a mono-material which improves product handling, consumer experience and ease of recycling. A further demonstration of the versatility of cartonboard with brands and consumers alike, along with an indication of how cartonboard can be used to good effect as a replacement for single-use plastic.

All of this makes cartonboard an ever more attractive packaging solution for brands both commercially and ecologically, especially with the plastic packaging tax just having come into force.

The tax, which is aimed at discouraging single use plastics, will impact not only brand owners, but producers, retailers and manufacturers across the supply chain.

Plastic packaging components containing 30% or more recycled plastic are not chargeable for the tax, but if ever there was an incentive for more brands to use more recycled material, either wholly or part of in product production, such as cartonboard, then this is clear from the implications of the tax. The time for brands to switch to cartonboard has never been clearer.

This is where cartonboard’s circularity credentials further come in to play. 90% of the wood fibres used in the European paper and board industry originate from European forests, of which more than 70% is sourced from sustainably managed and certified forests[4].

During the period between 2005 and 2020, European forests grew in excess of 58,000[5], or to put it into clearer perspective, 1,500 football pitches per day[6]. And if that wasn’t enough, a further commitment has been made by the European Forest industry to plant an additional 3 billion trees by 2030 in addition to the reforestation of harvested areas; measures which are wholeheartedly endorsed by Pro Carton.

The paper and board industry is a very local industry with a strong focus on Europe. 90% of the wood used to produce cartonboard is sourced from European forests. The mills for both virgin and recovered fibre material are widely spread in Europe and located near the raw materials. The wide majority of cartonboard is delivered to local converters and finally to European production sites.

Closing the loop is a dense network of recycling stations to secure collection, sorting, and feeding the product back to the mills to produce new packaging materials. To ensure a continuous supply of renewable raw material, Pro Carton ardently support sustainable forest management and see it as a clear supply route for sustainably sourced raw materials, essential for the clean production processes used to produce carton and cartonboard products.

The importance of sustainable forest management for the environment cannot be overstated. Healthy and growing forests are a key pillar in the fight against climate change. Forests play a vital role in carbon sequestration, with EU forests absorbing the equivalent of nearly 10% of total EU greenhouse gas emissions each year[7].

Furthermore, 39% of the EU surface is covered with forests[8]. Forests also play an important role in our overall wellbeing by providing space for recreation and as a natural habitat for wildlife, the perfect setting for family picnics and long walks.

But it is not just the environmental factors that set cartonboard apart from other products. Packaging today is the first touch point for the consumer before they get in contact with the product. Increasing numbers of consumers prioritise sustainable packaging when deciding whether to purchase a product, therefore a carton plays a vital role in creating a positive brand awareness of the product it protects.

Its appeal to brands and retailers extends to its practicality as a packaging material. Cartonboard offers extensive print and refinement capabilities. It is ideal for a wide variety of print applications, from smooth to textured finishes, design elements stressed by embossing, all of which enhance its standout appeal.

Cartonboard’s role in the circular economy is clear. From its origins as wood pulp from sustainably managed forests to its high recyclability in a system deeply trusted by consumers.

With consumers increasingly in tune with the threat of climate change to our planet, and the importance of environmentally friendly products and packaging, brands and retailers are under immense pressure to adapt accordingly. Using cartonboard and fibre-based packaging is part of the solution. Every day.

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[1] Recyclability of Cartonboard and Carton, Dr Rene Eckhart, Technische Universität Graz, 2021

[2] Eurostat 2018, Paper and Cardboard Packaging, EU27

[3] European Consumer Packaging Perceptions study, Pro Carton, 2021

[4] CEPI Statistics, 2019

[5] FAO data, 2005-2020

[6] FAO, 2020

[7] .

[8] Eurostat, 2021 – accessible through this link:

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