Renewable materials: a truly circular economy?

Materials World magazine
1 Dec 2016

Mandy Kelly argues that renewable materials from bio-based sources can help create a circular economy.

The concept of a circular economy, in which materials are efficiently and responsibly used throughout their lifecycle, is now widely accepted. It provides consumers, industries and society as a whole with a way forward for making sustainable decisions. However, material reuse and recycling at end-of-life usually take centre-stage in the circular economy debate, overlooking the role that responsibly-sourced renewable raw materials can play at the beginning of the process.

Bio-based resources are derived from biomass, meaning material of a biological origin, favouring a circular model based on materials such as wood fibre. It departs from the traditional economic approach of ‘make, use, dispose’ to 'reuse, recycle or biodegrade’. All beverage cartons are on average made from 75% wood fibre, a renewable material from a living source, which falls into this category. 

The bio-based industries are now big business, worth more than €600 million and employing 3.2 million people in the EU alone. Marcel Wubbolts, Chair of the Bio-based Industries Consortium, recently said, ‘Bio-based industries are already an important part of the European economy and are a pivotal element in the transition towards a sustainable circular economy, with renewable raw materials as key enablers.’

The potential for renewable materials

Looking carefully at the beginning of the lifecycle could signal a different approach to renewable materials, as their potential is not currently being reflected in the debate. There’s a widely-held assumption that using recycled materials, as opposed to ‘virgin’ materials, is always the best approach. However, the economy cannot be an entirely ‘closed loop’, relying only on secondary materials. There has to be an input of primary materials at some stage.

The paper and board sector provides a good example of this. Paper and board will always need an input of virgin fibre into the system as after wood fibre has been recycled up to seven times it becomes too short and is lost in processing – but the key is how this fibre is produced.

Companies such as Tetra Pak, Elopak and SIG Combibloc are all committed to sourcing wood fibre from which beverage cartons are made from responsibly managed forests, certified annually according to Chain of Custody standards set by the Forest Stewardship Council. 

Important ecological benefits

As they grow, these forests absorb CO2 and release oxygen and, because of the sound forest management practices in Sweden and Finland, where most of the
wood fibre for European beverage cartons is sourced, the net volume of wood is increasing year-on-year. There are also extremely important ecological benefits
to sustainably-managed forestry in relation to biodiversity, habitat and soil and water management. 

The Impact of the global forest industry on atmospheric greenhouse gases study by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations indictated that the amount of carbon stored in forest products is increasing annually by around 150 million tonnes, which is the equivalent of removing 424 million tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere per year.

All of this means that beverage cartons have a strong environmental story to tell – they are a low-carbon packaging choice, manufactured from predominantly renewable materials, but which can also be easily recycled. We believe that it is vital not to lose sight of the importance of responsibly-sourced renewable materials in a truly circular economy. If the potential of renewable materials to contribute to carbon reduction and the circular economy is ignored, a vital piece of the jigsaw could be missed.

Committed to carton recycling

Recycling is still very important – the beverage carton industry is committed to increasing carton recycling. So much so that in September 2013, in partnership with multinational paper and packaging producer Sonoco Alcore, the industry opened the UK’s only dedicated recycling plant for beverage cartons, near Halifax, West Yorkshire. 

This facility is capable of recycling up to 40% of the cartons supplied each year to the UK food and drink market, with more than 300 million cartons recycled since it opened. Recycling cartons in the UK instead of Sweden, as was previously the case, has led to an estimated annual reduction of 122 tonnes of transport-related CO2. The output from this process provides the raw material for other products to be manufactured, principally the coreboard that is produced on the same site.

However, household waste recycling rates are stalling in England, and a recent investigation by the BBC pointed to an 84% rise in recyclable waste rejected in England since 2011, which understandably made the headlines (see Materials World, October 2016, page 14). There is a clear link between information, public engagement in recycling and the quality of recyclable material being collected. Over the past few years we have witnessed first-hand the impact of budget cuts on local authority waste teams. 

The priority for councils has been to maintain front line services and communications budgets have often been a casualty when making savings. Unfortunately, this is now translating into quality issues and flatlining recycling rates. This is an area where industry provides valuable support to colleagues in the public sector. ACE UK supplies free communications materials to help councils engage residents in recycling programmes. However, the industry can still do more to help.

Simple and consistent labelling

Good information makes it easier for consumers to recycle. The food and drink industry has been successful in communicating the benefits of recycling, and on-pack labelling has played an important part in this, as clear, simple and consistent labelling provides consumers with relevant information that is easy to follow.  

With this in mind, at the end of 2015, ACE UK joined the British Retail Consortium, as joint owners of OPRL Ltd, which runs the UK’s on-pack recycling label scheme. Clear information and leadership is required to achieve greater and more effective recycling, and by joining together we believe we can better realise these aims.

The beverage carton industry is fully committed to increasing recycling of the packaging it supplies to the UK market but, as well as providing end-of-life solutions, we believe that what happens at the beginning of the carton’s lifecycle is just as important.

Bio-based, renewable materials can provide consistent material supply and ensure sustainable growth, and by using more renewable materials there can be less dependency on finite resources and a reduction in the packaging industry’s environmental footprint. These are vital steps in moving towards a truly circular economy.

Mandy Kelly is Senior Recycling Manager at ACE UK, having over 30 years’ experience in the recycling industry. Kelly is a Member for the Confederation of Paper Industries Recovered Paper Committee, and was a founder member of the Resource Association, as well as an elected board director