Thinking outside the box

4 January 2021

Pro Carton is the body responsible for cartons and cartonboard packaging in Europe. Demand for cartonboard packaging surged during the pandemic, fuelled by increases in online shopping and consumers stockpiling food. Tony Hitchin, general manager of Pro Carton, explains how the industry rose to this challenge. He also discusses innovation that has emerged in 2020 and how the sector managed deliver against sky-high demand without shortchanging its sustainability agenda in the process

One of the defining images of the start of the pandemic was the sight of ransacked supermarket shelves. As shoppers stockpiled food and other essentials, retailers couldn’t keep pace with the surge in demand.

This had ripple effects across many critical industries, not least packaging. Demand for packaging soared, specifically within food, pharmaceuticals and e-commerce shipments, and the industry did all it could to step up output. Converters knew they had a vital role in ensuring security of supply.

The increase in plastics packaging was less than ideal, given the pressing need to reduce plastics waste and transition to a circular economy. Before the pandemic, European countries were doing an admirable job in moving away from single use plastics. Since the start of the outbreak, many of these efforts have been frustrated or delayed.

The increase in cardboard packaging posed different challenges. For sure, cardboard, paper and cartonboard aren’t inherently polluting. But there were serious challenges on the supply side – short-term demand spiked about 30% in March – and real concerns about a lack of raw materials.

At the end of March, The Recycling Association (TRA) said the UK could face a looming shortage of recycled cardboard (which makes up 89% of the cardboard in Europe). As local authorities scaled back their recycling services, used paper and cardboard were ending up in landfill, stoking fears that recycled fibre might soon be in short supply.

In some parts of the UK, fly-tipping tripled during lockdown, with mounds of cardboard boxes heaping up around closed recycling sites.

Simon Ellin, CEO of the TRA, said: “Of huge concern to us is the signs that Europe is already becoming short of fibre with which to make cardboard boxes. Food and medical supplies all move by cardboard box and if we can’t make cardboard boxes, everything stops. If councils stop collecting recycling, and many are, all this fibre is burnt or goes to landfill and we will be short.”

Seven months down the line, demand for cardboard and cartonboard has more or less returned to normal. However, it hasn’t been an easy time. ProCarton, which represents European carton and cartonboard manufacturers, had an extremely busy few months advocating for its members’ needs.

“In a crisis of this kind, packaging is essential to ensure ongoing supply especially for the pharmaceutical, food and drink and medical equipment sectors,” says Tony Hitchin, general

manager of Pro Carton. “With the world suddenly going into lockdown, we signed a statement to the EU Transport Commissioner to demand continued cross-border and intercountry transport of raw materials, good and packaging.”

The European Commission paid attention. On 23rd March, it updated its ‘Guidelines for Border Management’ to ensure unobstructed transport of goods across the entire network of traffic veins. In particular, it opened ‘green lane’ border crossings – dedicated freight channels at international frontiers, which were open to vehicles carrying any kind of goods.

“It included an instruction that time spent at these fast-track points ‘including any checks and screenings, should not exceed 15 minutes’, which helped our industry to move quickly and keep up with the demand,” says Hitchin. “The mills and converters worked tirelessly to ensure the peak in demand was met and it showed how strong and responsive the carton industry can be.”

In addition to lobbying for the green lanes, Pro Carton issued a document that hauliers could display, when transporting printed cartons and cartonboard across Europe. This document, available in 11 languages, was intended to support the European Commission and the wider industry. It meant lorries could transport materials to packaging converters without unnecessary delays.

“Alongside working flat out to meet the demand, the industry really stepped up to support key workers around the world,” adds Hitchin “Pro Carton became a recognised supporter of Fiber Shield – an international coalition of leading paperboard packaging companies and supply chain partners who pooled their collective resources and production capabilities to supply single-use face shields to medical professionals. It was truly a tremendous team effort, with over 4.2 million fiber shields donated to date.”

The Fiber Shield website offers proprietary, or patent-pending, face shield designs free of charge. Production companies can manufacture and sell these face shields with no royalty obligations, so long as they commit to donating at least 100,000 face shields to medical providers or first responders. This initiative has gone a long way towards addressing global PPE shortages, and demonstrates how the packaging industry has come together at a time of great humanitarian need.

Despite the challenges faced during the pandemic, Pro Carton never deviated from its sustainability agenda. Among other initiatives, it adapted its successful TICCIT (Trees into Carton, Cartons into Trees) programme for home learning.

Aimed at children between seven and 11, this programme has been taught in schools for over a decade. It teaches them about trees, recycling and paper, and shows them how to plant a tree sapling inside a recycled carton and then out into the ground. TICCIT at Home became an invaluable resource when schools across the continent closed.

“It has helped parents teach their children about the environment in a fun way during this unprecedented time,” says Hitchin. “Complementing this, we launched a brand-new home-schooling initiative called EduCarton. The online educational resources include a variety of

printable activities for younger children, available in several languages to download for free.”

ProCarton also launched a series of videos to help young people understand how their actions impact the environment. These videos, which introduce five new superheroes called ‘The Carton Campaigners’, highlight important events like Global Recycling Day and Earth Overshoot Day.

“Pro Carton’s activity promoting cartonboard as the premier sustainable packaging material has continued unabated through the coronavirus pandemic because we believe, now more than ever, that it is crucial in protecting our planet for future generations,” says Hitchin. “Cartonboard is the best solution in the packaging sector as it is renewable, recyclable and biodegradable and thus a pillar of a modern circular economy.”

According to research by Pro Carton (The European Consumer Packaging Perceptions Study, 2018), 68% of Europeans say being environmentally friendly has become more important to them. A similar figure (69%) say they are recycling more waste, while 52% say they are seeking out products with environmentally-friendly packaging and 77% say they would pay more for such packaging. Moreover, 52% believe cartonboard/cardboard is the best choice in this regard.

The facts are on their side. Cartonboard is fully recyclable and biodegradable, and wood fibres can be recycled several times over (around five times, on average) before additional virgin fibre is needed. The wood is sourced from sustainably managed forests, and the production process itself is becoming more eco friendly – most European mills run on biomass.

What’s more, manufacturers are continuously researching new technologies to improve the sustainability and performance of their cartonboard packaging.

“Moisture and grease resistant properties are vital for many types of pack, especially for food, so we are seeing great advancements in bio-based coatings which replace the use of plastic barriers,” says Hitchin. “This year we have also seen innovation in board that prevents fungus such as mould, spores, bacteria and even viruses from spreading on carton, thus prolonging the shelf life of perishable goods.”

This last year has seen an abundance of new carton engineering solutions and designs. A key example is Coca-Cola, which introduced KeelClip technology to replace plastic wraps on its multipacks. A minimalist paperboard packaging solution, the technology was initially rolled out in Ireland, the Netherlands and Poland and will be in place across the EU by the end of next year.

Joe Franses, VP of sustainability at Coca-Cola European Partners, said: “Innovation is a key principle of our sustainable packaging work and the application of this fully recyclable paperboard KeelClip, which comprises a top board that the cans clip into and a central cardboard ‘keel’ - similar to a ship’s keel - that stabilises the pack, is another example of

how we are delivering on our commitment to remove all unnecessary and hard to recycle single-use plastic from our products.”

As well as replacing the plastic wrap (which will save 2,000 tonnes of plastic and 3,000 tonnes of CO2 annually), this solution keeps paper and card packaging to a minimum. Many other brands are looking to do likewise – not only replacing plastic with paper, but reducing the volume of packaging overall.

Further down the line, we can expect manufacturers to push the bounds of what is considered possible. At the more speculative end, Carlsberg has been working on its Green Fibre Bottle (dubbed ‘the world’s first paper beer bottle’) since 2015. It has created two prototypes, albeit with thin plastic barriers, and aims to phase out polymers altogether.

With a view to rewarding innovation, Pro Carton awards the prestigious European Carton Excellence Award every year. This year, the Carton E-vent and Awards took place virtually on October 7th, in conjunction with ECMA. Contenders included everything from a filter paper face mask to McDonald’s ‘Eco Fit lid’.

The Young Designers Award, which is awarded in parallel, showed an astonishing breadth of creativity. The entrants included ‘pill box sustainable medicine packaging’, a cardboard belt, and a pencil case among many others.

“The number and quality of submissions across the 2020 awards was phenomenal and the innovative entries demonstrate just how well cartons protect and promote brands, as well as looking after the environment,” says Hitchin. “Despite the disruption brought about by the global coronavirus pandemic, 2020 proved to be another record-breaking year, particularly for the Pro Carton Young Designers Award which received over 550 cartonboard designs submitted from 25 different countries across the continent.”

As we move into 2021 – and hopefully past the most damaging impacts of the pandemic – the emphasis will be on economic and ecological recovery. Circular economy solutions bring both these aspects together, improving our resilience against shocks and creating jobs, while investing in the long-term health of the planet. Cardboard and cartonboard packaging will surely be an important factor in this equation.

“The effects of a global lockdown have shown us how much the environment can heal if we reduce our detrimental impact,” says Hitchin. “But true sustainability can only be achieved by design and not disaster, so with this knowledge, we must now ensure a green recovery. The EU Commission’s green deal is at the very heart of this move towards a circular economy and must be a number one priority for the immediate future.”

Privacy Policy
We have updated our privacy policy. In the latest update it explains what cookies are and how we use them on our site. To learn more about cookies and their benefits, please view our privacy policy. Please be aware that parts of this site will not function correctly if you disable cookies. By continuing to use this site, you consent to our use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy unless you have disabled them.