Fresh or recycled? It’s not an either/or

Fresh or recycled? It’s not an either/or

​When shopping for your groceries, do you choose packaging based on how environmentally friendly you think it is? If, like us, you want to make the best choices for the planet, there are a few things it’s important to know. ​For example, how environmentally friendly are cartons made from non-recycled fibre (also called virgin or fresh fibre) compared to recycled ones? You might be surprised by the answer.

Fresh and recycled fibre both have their uses, but it's a fact that recycled packaging couldn't exist without fresh fibre. "Wood fibre breaks down with every use – much like a sweater won't be shop-fresh after several washes," explains Anne Uusitalo, Director of Product Safety & Sustainability at Metsä Board. "When using recycled fibres you usually need to add some fresh fibre into the mixture to get the required strength and stiffness needed for the packaging – making fresh fibre both the start and the enabler of the circular economy."

Keeping food safe with high-quality fresh fibre

It might not be the first thing on your mind when picking up a package from the store shelf, but recycled packaging can contain residues from printing ink, adhesives and other chemicals that should not come into direct contact with food – in fact it is forbidden in some countries to use recycled fibre packaging for these purposes. Fresh wood fibres, on the other hand, are pure and safe – packaging made with fresh fibre paperboard will not affect the taste of food packed or served in it. We know the origin of fresh fibres from sustainably managed forests – with recycled fibres we often don't know where they have come from.

Minimising your carbon footprint

What's also good to know is that the carbon footprint of packaging made from fresh wood fibres could be even lower than that of packaging made from recycled fibres. For example, the paperboard weight and the amount of material needed to produce a piece of packaging play an important role in the carbon footprint. "When using recycled paperboard for packaging, you often need more material to meet the same strength and stiffness requirements as you'd get with fresh fibre," points out Anne. "The high strength and bulk of fresh fibre paperboards allow lighter basis weights to be used for the same packaging quality, which has sustainability benefits throughout the packaging lifecycle: less raw material needed, less weight to transport and less waste to dispose of at the end of the chain." In addition, the type of energy used in board production also plays a key role – when using low-emission, renewable energy resources the environmental impact of fresh fibre paperboard enables a lower footprint.

The sustainable choice

So what is the key takeaway from this? Fundamentally, fresh and recycled fibre are partners in the circular economy. In order to choose the option with the lighter environmental impact you need to know more. Does it make sense to discuss which is better, when generally speaking, both are good? "Choosing any sort of paperboard packaging is good when you know it's of renewable, sustainable origin, rather than fossil-based plastics, for example. The way we can make the biggest contribution to the environment and mitigating climate change is to reduce the use of fossil-based energy and fossil-based materials," Anne concludes.

Anne Uusitalo,
Director of Product Safety & Sustainability at Metsä Board

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