Northern Europe's paperboard suppliers look to greener pastures

Northern Europe's paperboard suppliers look to greener pastures

In an increasingly competitive market, paperboard’s Nordic pioneers are developing increasingly sustainable, plastic-free premium materials to offer luxury brands solutions that are both elegant and renewable. The next step? Integrating a circular economy approach.

Brands want to create a unique experience for consumers while reducing their impact on the planet,” explains Mika Joukio, Ceo of Metsä Board. Luxury brands are turning to several strategies to stand out: intelligent design that optimizes material use; uncompromising quality; less plastic; a lower carbon footprint and recyclability within a circular economy. “Luxury and sustainability go hand in hand,” Joukio continues, “and brand value can be greatly improved with high-quality, sustainable packaging.” The manufacturer is inaugurating a new research and design center for excellence this year in Äänekoski, Finland in a bid to boost innovation in the renewable materials market.

The use of environmentally friendly, wood-based cardboard is being encouraged as the EU moves towards banning single-use plastics. “With recycling rates above 70% in Europe, the paper industry comes closest to circularity,” says Johan Nellbeck, Ceo of Iggesund (Holmen), one of Sweden’s largest forest owners with 1.3 million hectares. “There is strong interdependence between producers of virgin fibers and the paper recycling industry. We provide the virgin fibers necessary to maintain the quality of their pool, and because our fibers can be used several times it increases our products’ sustainability.”

The long tradition of sustainable forest management (PEFC and FSC) now allows suppliers to offer new ranges of resistant boxes that are both thinner and lighter, with exceptional brightness, like Metsä Board’s Natural FBB and Prime FBB. “The footprint of fresh fiber packaging is often smaller than that of recycled fiber due to its lighter weight,” notes Joukio. Global demand for fresh fiber board is therefore expected to increase by 2% to 3% per year, according to Metsä Board.

The sector is preparing to meet this demand, while last year Stora Enso invested €350m to transform its paper mill in Oulu, Finland to make bleached kraft paper (White Kraftliner) with a high print quality for packaging. The unit should be operational by the end of 2020. Iggesund is keeping the focus on flagship brands Invercote (Iggesund Mill, Sweden) and Incada (Workington, UK), which offer resistant and bright solutions derived from fresh fibers. These references are also sought-after for their high productivity levels, useful for the tobacco industry, which is now in decline.

As capacities increase, Iggesund is turning to the vertical luxury and medical markets as growth drivers internationally. This year, the priority at BillerudKorsnäs is to increase performance of a new, highly flexible, next-generation automatic machine (KM7), operational since last October at the Gruvon site in Sweden. Ultimately, it will be able to produce 550,000 tons of premium materials annually for the company’s Board division. The cardboard certification process began in early 2020, according to the supplier.

The new CrownBoard range from BillerudKorsnäs features 100% virgin wood fiber boxes: CrownBoard Prestige in bright white; CrownBoard Artisan, with a silky touch; and the ultra-resistant and versatile white/brown board CrownBoard Craft. High resistance is achieved through the use of long and strong fibers from slow-growing Nordic trees, and a multi-jet design structure.

The sector’s main growth strategies aim to capture the high-end segment of the market, while investing in production efficiency and sustainable development. This involves continuous forestry management to guarantee the quality and supply of certified wood in light of climate change. Over the past two years, a restructuring of Bergvik Skog’s forest shareholding has enabled Stora Enso to secure a total of 1.4 million hectares, with a billion euro impact on its accounts.

“Metsä Board has set ambitious goals, such as having fossil-fuel-free manufacturing plants by 2030,” notes Joukio. The €320m energy renovation program launched for the pulp mill in Husum, Sweden marked an important milestone. In 2019, fossil fuel-free energy accounted for 83% of the company’s total energy consumption. Over an eight-year period Iggesund has invested more than €400m in energy transformation. “Our two factories in Sweden and the UK are powered by 90% bioenergy and, since 2019, the Swedish plant has operated on 98% bioenergy,” notes Nellbeck. “We are also focusing investments on quality control and digitization to take our processes to the next level.”

Meanwhile, since 2019, Metsä Board has been testing new digital production solutions with an AI-powered pilot project on realtime quality management at its Finnish factory Kyro, in Kyröskoski. Meanwhile, BillerudKorsnäs is driving its program to increase efficiency (initiated in late 2019 and expected to run through 2021) with the goal of saving €55m.

Manufacturers have set a clear course for innovation. Annica Bresky, appointed Ceo of Stora Enso six months ago, aims to increase the share of new products and services in the portfolio from 7% to 15% adopting a circular model. Several approaches are being developed to move beyond paperboard towards renewable, recyclable materials, with new barrier functions to increase applications.

In October Metsä Board, which promotes co-innovation across the entire value chain, launched a plastic-free Prime FBB EB eco-barrier paperboard, which has garnered interest in the food industry, according to Joukio. Indeed, replacing plastic is a key motivator when working with brands. “Luxury brands expect a combination of three elements: quality, consistency, and low environmental footprint, supported by superior service,” notes Nellbeck at Iggesund, which recently launched Inverform, a food carton with a thin plastic barrier. “By switching from plastic to a combination of paperboard and thin plastic, you can easily reduce the packaging footprint by more than 50%,” he notes.

In January, to demonstrate its new business model, Stora Enso merged its Container Board and Consumer Board divisions to create the Packaging Materials division, which has a large portfolio of virgin and recycled fibers. Its two intended areas of growth are MFC technology (microfiltered cellulose), which allows for lighter weights; and biocomposites composed of 30% to 60% wood fibers, which provide the same performance and strength as plastic, especially useful for cosmetic jars or liquor bottle caps.

Stora Enso is also focusing on its molded packaging unit using PFC and FSC certified fibers for cosmetic niche applications and luxury packaging. Five million euros were invested last year in a dedicated production line in Sweden and it established a partnership with HS Manufacturing Group (HSMG), producer of plant-based barrier coatings. In association with machine manufacturer Aisa, Stora Enso launched a cosmetic paperboard tube made of 70% virgin fiber produced at the Imatra site in Finland last year.

New products should account for 15% of BillerudKorsnäs' sales in 2023, according to Ceo Lennart Holm, who has been at the helm since November 2019. The Paper Bottle Company is an ambitious project with bottle manufacturer Alpla, undertaken through the joint venture Pacobo. Launched in October 2019, the project brings together specialists from different fields (materials, technologies, design) supported by groups such as Coca Cola, Absolut Vodka, Carlsberg, and L’Oréal.

This step-by-step concept of circular economy innovation has already led to the development of a fully bio-sourced and recyclable paper bottle. The bottle is made from renewable paper for reinforced structure and solidity, and strengthened by polyethylene furanoate (PEF), derived from vegetable sugars and developed by Dutch renewable chemistry specialist Avantium. The PEF is a 100% bio-based and recyclable polymer, which can be used in numerous applications, including packaging for soft drinks, water, spirits, and fruit juices. The barrier role and thermal properties of PEF are superior to that of conventional PET. This, combined with a considerably reduced carbon footprint, gives PEF the qualities to make it the next generation of polyester. Pacobo hopes to be able to start control tests in 2020.

For its part, Stora Enso has invested €9m in a pilot plant in Langerbrugge, Belgium, which will be operational in the first half of 2021, to produce a renewable material derived from plant sugar—furan dicarboxylic acid (FDCA)—used to produce the PEF. The company’s goal is to encourage plant-based plastic.

Spotlight: supplier innovations

Eska’s latest environmentally friendly launch is Eska Jeans, a recycled compact cardboard made from wood fibers and denim. Prints are made with water-based ink. Composed of three layers, Eska Jeans is sturdy, light, and flat, with perfectly mass-colored edges and sharp angles. The color and texture of Eska Jeans varies depending on the supply, making this cardboard infinitely customizable.

A new development from Arjowiggins Creative Papers is Curious Alchemy, a collection available in five shades inspired by precious metals (silver, titanium, gold, copper, and platinum) with a hammered texture and a patinated metal effect, which give a unique finish to invitations, luxury greeting cards, covers, and packaging. Available in 120g or 300g, the paper is suitable for offset, embossing, hot stamping, screen printing, cutting and laminating.

Gmund’s Bio Cycle collection incorporates up to 50% alternative ingredients enriched with FSC- fresh fiber cellulose and 100% recycled paper. Chlorophyll paper (600 g/m2) gets its bright green color from the addition of natural chlorophyll. Straw contains up to 50% cellulose from wheat straw, replacing wood-based raw materials. For Cannabis, cellulose from European cannabis results in a subdued hue and occasional visible plant fibers; the hemp is palpable in the slightly coarse texture. Rag is a combination of cotton and FSC cellulose from fresh fibers resulting in a paper of great purity and durability. The creamy color of Cycle is achieved by its use of 100% recycled cellulose.

Zanbarrier NGR (Natural Grease Resistant) from German papermaker Zanders offers a 100% natural barrier against oil and grease; resistance to humidity; 100% virgin fibers and is food-contact certified (ISEGA). Its increased density allows for flexible food packaging applications and its opacity makes it a fit for any type of treatment, from micro-grooving to rolling.

This article originally appeared in the 2020 summer issue of our sister publication Formes de Luxe.

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