The role of packaging in a changing world

Niels Flierman, head of paper at DS Smith says the paper industry has a huge role to play in replacing hard to recycle and single use plastic as he looks at the importance of quality in recycled papers.

The world around us is changing, and it is particularly noticeable in consumer shopping habits. We have seen the exponential rise of online shopping as an ‘always on’ culture reshapes the way we live, shop and consume.

Consumers increasingly expect to purchase products tailored for them, whenever they want them, wherever they want them, delivered in a way that fits their modern, busy lifestyles.

The e-commerce boom means more and more packaging is ending up in domestic recycling streams

Through Covid-19 we have seen the rise of online shopping accelerate even further. A recent survey by DS Smith of consumers across Europe found that 64% of Europeans say they shopped online more during Covid-19, with 89% reporting that they will continue to shop online at the same level or even more post-lockdown.

At the same time society has never been so aware of the impact we’re having on the world around us. As conversations around circular economy principles and actions become the norm, coupled with huge consumer behaviour shifts placing new demands on packaging, the industry needs to respond to this challenge.

The e-commerce boom means more and more packaging is ending up in domestic recycling streams, so how we manage those streams is key to producing recycled high quality, high performing packaging papers.

The Right Collection Method

Packaging from recycled fibres is an enabler in circular economy aspirations, but quality has to be at the very heart of the recycling and paper-making process.

Making packaging papers from recycled fibres is like any other production process. It begins with quality raw materials; in this case, quality materials for recycling.

The most important factor in achieving quality paper for recycling is separate collections, ensuring paper and card is collected separately from other recyclable material and therefore greatly reducing the risk of contamination.

Tackling Contamination In Papers for Recycling

As paper makers, we don’t live in a perfect word and the reality is we receive Papers for Recycling (PfR) from a variety of collection methods and where paper is often mixed with other materials for recycling. Material Recycling Facilities –  where paper is sorted ready to be sent to mills – need to be stringent in the sorting and inspection of PfR.

Once material arrives at a mill, quality inspection is at the very start of the process and continues throughout. It is important to make sure you have the right in-house knowledge and technical expertise to analyse recycled fibres and better control the quality and performance of finished packaging papers.

At DS Smith we are rolling out Near Infra-red (NIR) scanners that help us to forensically examine the quality of material  arriving at the mill, helping us underline the need for separate collections of PfR.

Last year alone at our mill in Kent in the UK, this technology helped prevented the equivalent of 4.8 million black bin bags of plastic from entering the papermaking process.

Our analysis with NIR has shown that when paper is collected in mixed recycling streams, as opposed to source segregated streams, the amount of plastic contamination can double. Too much plastic and other contamination in the paper making process can be hugely costly in terms of waste and operational efficiency.

The Opportunity For Fibre Based Packaging

The paper industry has a huge role to play in replacing hard to recycle and  single use plastic. We need to seize this opportunity and at the same time make sure that our collection, sorting and recycling systems support quality and enable circularity in a cost-effective way.

There needs to be a focus on innovation to make sure that we can create recycled packaging that is lighter, stronger and supports the sustainability demands so prevalent in today’s society.

Quality underpins all of this and is vital if we are to maintain and grow the 84% recycling rate for paper-based packaging in Europe today.

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