Paper is an inspiring material – and the future of packaging
In the age of increasing demand for sustainability, where is the future of the packaging industry? One answer could be in the Finnish forest, as a group of German packaging engineering students discovered.
Still 10 more kilometres... A winding sand road leads a huge bus through ever changing forest scenery, broken only by a few farms here and there. The mood in the bus is full of anticipation.
The visit to the UPM-owned forest in Kouvola is the high point of the day for a group of packaging engineering students and their professors from Beuth University in Berlin. The group is on a few days’ visit to Finland, heading towards the source of the raw material – just before the trip to the forest, they visited Kotkamills Oy to get hands-on experience of how pulp-based plastic free multilayer repulpable barrier board is made. The annual visit from Beuth University to Finland and to Kotka has been a tradition since the first group of students explored the northern production facilities back in 2011.
As the students emerge from the bus, senior specialist in environment Tuomas Kara from UPM Forestry is ready to greet them. Gathering the students to see an area of recently planted forest, Tuomas walks the students through the whole process of UPM’s sustainable forestry, from planting new trees (over 50 million each year!) to the mosaic-like design of the forest to promote biodiversity. Professor Stefan Junge gives credit to UPM for their commitment to sustainability.
“In our field, at every international conference you hear the word sustainability, which originally comes from the forest industry,” professor Junge says. “This gives credibility to the forest sector, as they were forerunners in this ideology.”
Bearded and rugged, Juha Puhakka looks everything you’d expect of a tough logger at work in the middle of a forest. Swiftly he cuts down one tree after another, passing the logs through his huge harvester, which seems to move agilely through the dense pinewood. The smell of freshly cut trees fills the crisp autumn air. Puhakka started his work shift at 4 am this morning and has already worked through over 700 trees.
Some 90 metres away, students dressed in safety vests, goggles and helmets are keenly observing the action.
“The machinery is very cool, in normal life you never get to see anything like this,” enthuses Ngoc Anh Doan Thi, a packaging engineering student from the university.
Getting a closer look as Puhakka stops his machine, many students want to take a selfie next to the harvester or hop inside the cabin for an introduction to how the machine operates. One of the first in line is an alumnus of the university, Uwe Loehr. He works as a packaging engineer at Beiersdorf, a German company specialising in packaging for cosmetics. He has over 30 years' experience in the industry.
“In the last five years the packaging industry has really repositioned itself when it comes to sustainability. The introduction of recyclable materials in packaging has greatly influenced design. New insights and ideas are constantly coming through,” Loehr says.
Consumers demand sustainability
Markus Lassak is a senior student who returned to university to finish his Master’s degree, after a stint working in the food packaging sector.
“This is a visit to the source of the material I will be working with in the future. Currently, I am really into folding boxes and solid board. They provide excellent physical protection for the goods. When I was working in this industry, I was actively going towards this direction.”
Lassak thinks the packaging industry could do more in adapting to the demand coming from customers, who actively call for wider use of recyclable and sustainable materials. Looking forward to working in research and development, he hopes to be part of creating new innovations in the field.
“Paper as a material has mechanical properties that still need to be improved so that it could be used more widely in the food industry, for example. In the future I would love to see the barrier and sealing properties of paper and board improve,” he envisions.
New ideas from nature
Engineering student Ngoc Anh Doan Thi explains how paper has been a big part of her studies.
“We have participated in a lot of competitions in packaging design and paper has been the main material we have been working with. Paper inspires me a lot because you can do so much with it, it is multidimensional. And it brings nature to the consumer,” she says.
Bright red lingonberries peeking through the forest foliage lure many students to stop and pick a few on their way back to the bus, which is taking them to the airport. UPM marketing manager in sustainability Natasha Rubanin-Hildén sees that no-one leaves the forest without having a coffee from a kuksa, a traditional Finnish wooden camping mug, that everyone is free to take home.
Ngoc Anh Doan Thi sums up the ideas many of the students had after the visit.
“It was great to see how passionate everyone is about the forest and how committed they are in maintaining it sustainably. This definitely gave me a lot of ideas.”
Text: Anna Gustafsson
Photos: Tommi Mattila