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Story | 06/24/2020 07:10:31

Making a big deal about circularity

The European Union’s ambitious bid for carbon neutrality, introduction of its circular economy 2.0 and head-on war on plastic has presented a once in a lifetime chance for the pulp and paper industry to have a worldwide impact. It’s called 4evergreen alliance.

The 4evergreen alliance is an unprecedented industry collaboration. Never before have businesses and organisations from every part of the fibre-based packaging value chain joined forces for a common cause.

Events leading to the launch of the alliance were set in motion about a year ago when CEPI’s – the European association representing the paper industry – Director General Jori Ringman was first approached by large brand owners.

“Representatives of several large consumer food and beverage brands expressed their concerns on the EU’s plans to crack down on plastic. They wanted to know how changes in legislation would affect them. At the time I didn’t have the answers,” Ringman looks back.

Jori_RIngman_7382_web.jpgJori Ringman, CEPI's Director General.  

Widely used fibre-based packaging is made almost entirely from pulp. However plastic is used to provide certain functionalities, for instance barrier layers to enhance user experience.

Soon after, in March 2019, the European Parliament approved the law to prohibit single-use plastic items in EU member states by 2021. This meant banning one-use products such as plastic cutlery, plates, straws and cotton bud sticks to battle the ever-worsening plastic pollution problem.

But how would the law – dubbed the Single-Use Plastics Directive – be implemented in the case of packaging when they contain some plastic? Will a simple disposable paper coffee cup soon be banned too?

“There was a clear demand for better interpretation of the law and concrete next steps. This sparked a series of three workshops that involved players across the packaging value chain,” Ringman explains and continues. “To my surprise the participants liked this kind of holistic collaboration so much they asked if CEPI could facilitate a longer term programme to boost the contribution of fibre-based packaging in a circular and sustainable economy.” And so the 4evergreen alliance was born.  

Answering the call

The alliance connects industry members across the fibre-based packaging value chain - from pulp, paper and board producers to packaging converters, brand owners and retailers, technology and material suppliers, waste sorters and collectors. What makes the alliance especially unique is the fact that most of the participants are not CEPI members.

“This is our chance to scrutinise the entire packaging lifecycle. We need to both make product innovations and suggest systemic changes. No single company could implement a new packaging system or recycling scheme successfully in Europe’s multicultural and multilingual environment,” Jori Ringman says.

When 4evergreen kicked off in January 2020 the timing couldn’t be better. Only a couple of weeks earlier European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen unveiled the European Green Deal aiming for carbon neutrality by 2050. And according to early estimates the circular economy will have a crucial role in the plan.

Ringman says that 4evergreen will focus heavily on making recyclability and circularity common practices.

“I think the programme’s tagline ‘Circular fibre forward’ sums up our goals quite well. Fibre-based packaging can already be recycled efficiently. We want to enhance this process even more, making the transition to a carbon neutral circular economy possible.”

He also believes the alliance will produce innovations and designs tackling waste problems.

“Sustainable packaging could phase out plastic completely and still keep the same product performance. However, we don’t want to further vilify plastic. The key is to enable a higher level of recyclability and easy ways to separate plastic from paper.”

UPM-Pulp-European-family-breakfast-1_MI-0351_web.jpg

Widely used fibre-based packaging is made almost entirely from pulp. 

From plans to practice

The alliance involves more than 200 experts across the participating businesses and organisations. What started as a reaction to increasing legislative pressure in the EU can become a proactive driving force for the circular economy.

“The 4evergreen alliance is intended to be a two- or three-year programme. In my opinion our biggest pitfall could be if we paint with an overly broad brush. We need to define solid goals, set action plans and allocate tasks for every six or 12 months,” Jori Ringman says.

Since the timeframe is short, small task groups within workstreams were assigned to tackle concrete challenges such as standardisation of new packaging materials and how recycling infrastructure should adapt.

“The European Green Deal will be the EU’s grand plan for the next 30 years. This is our chance to stay more than relevant in the market – we can champion change with products that help societies to transition to climate neutrality.”

While consumers are not in focus, the alliance includes several retailers and brand owners who are in direct contact with them.

“It seems surprisingly unclear for many consumers what and how they should recycle. The alliance provides a perfect chance to agree on an ideal system and common messages as well as raise awareness about the benefits of fibre-based packaging materials.”

Ringman also underlines that all the solutions the alliance develops are available for everyone regardless of geographical location or business sector.

“While we are developing sustainable and circular packaging solutions for Europe, we want to be fully transparent. New findings can definitely be scaled to a global level and applied to other fibre-based products.”

 

Text: Niko Kilkki