Differences at national level when it comes to collection and recycling, but the aim is one: making paper products increasingly more recyclable. Cepi’s guidelines for recyclability of base paper packaging are applicable in Europe and may become a harmonized method.
The sector has always been engaged in paper recyclability. Recyclability – a symbol of the material, because it is one of its naturally intrinsic features – involves a long supply chain, from paper producers to the collection system, and needs to be remined of, taught, pursued. Even more so, if you consider that products made of paper often contain also other materials, so it is important to recycle them in the best way possible, so as to completely recover the fibre that can still be used. In this scenario, it becomes even more important to know how to obtain such products properly; acting upstream to recover paper more easily downstream.
The virtous circle
Paper industry in Europe is moving in the same direction, even though it follows different methods and rules. At the end of 2019, the Confederation of European Paper Industries (Cepi) – www.cepi.org – drafted and published the guidelines for recyclability of base paper packaging, which it is launching this year at European level. «The idea of the guidelines for recyclability» states Ulrich Leberle, director of Raw Materials at Cepi – that presented the document at the Aticelca 2020 Congress, «is a project aligned with our work along the entire life cycle of paper, because it is important to act in all stages».
If we consider all the actions that have to do with this material, and with the concept of circular economy, «paper is collected separately and packaged for recycling. It is sent to the paper mill, which creates recycled pulp and paper, which are then used by converters to make new paper-based products. Finally, the new product is used and properly disposed of by final consumers, so it is possible to start the process again». A process that the sector knows very well, and many indications already exist to regulate it, as Leberle recalls.
Between politics and the market
The recipient of the new guidelines by Cepi is the whole paper value chain, and more specifically, «those brands, retailers, and designers, who decide what the base paper packaging will look like».
The starting point for the document is twofold: «on the one hand, it is related to the circumstances and political developments, on the other hand, to the market », these two aspects are inevitably linked. «The EU plastics strategy contains a strong pressure towards reducing disposable plastic products», which cannot be recovered and pollute the environment, especially the sea. «I am referring to products that will be eliminated in the future, or their use reduced», and replaced with paper products.
As for the latter, the European laws envisage liability, first, of paper producers. Leberle reminds us that the review of the Directive on Packaging and its waste sets minimum requirements for liability schemes of producers. «These requirements include the eco-modulation of fees, namely the extended liability of producer – considering the recyclability of products».
These are legal obligations, to which the requests from the users are added. «We are witnessing a demand on the market for new products, for which more innovative packaging solutions need to be developed». The need – or even the simple request – to develop in paper products that were made of plastic – explains the director, very often complicates their structure and manufacturing. «We receive many requests from the market regarding the recyclability of these sub-materials and products for later reuse in the paper industry. It is a very positive signal both on the market front», which is clearly more attentive to the issues of materials recycling of materials, «and on the political front».
Waste collection in Europe
All this, however, fits into a rather fragmented landscape in terms of collection. «The systems implemented for waste collection in households in Europe are very different and are divided into three groups» points out Leberle. «The first one, implemented in the Benelux countries, Austria, Germany, and more recently in Poland, is the collection of paper and cardboard separately from other recyclable materials, while composite packaging is collected with the light fraction».
In the second group, «paper is collected separately from cardboard. This system prevails in the Nordic countries, and composite packaging, such as that of cartons for soft drinks, is collected directly with the most general fraction of cardboard». Finally, we have a «mixed collection, in which paper and cardboard, especially cardboard, are collected in a single flow, along with other recyclable products. This system prevails in the United Kingdom, and, partly, also in France».
The paper industry has issued guidelines for separate collection and to remind of the requirements of the Waste Framework Directive on how to implement a separate collection. Indications that describe how quality recycling should be carried out and define how the waste cycle should be kept separate by type and nature. «For paper and cardboard, it means not only separation from waste, but also from other recycled materials».
Cepi’s analysis shows that Europe has a rather varied situation, not only in terms of collection methods, but also in terms of capability to recover materials. There are several paper mills with standard equipment in paper recycling plants, low-consistency pulpers and the ability to handle packaging with basic mechanical processing, as well as small amounts of composite products. «These paper mills» recalls Leberle «recycle over 35 million tonnes of material and use, as a reference, mainly the EN 643 from 1 to 4 (Paper and Cardboard – list of European standard qualities of recovered paper and board)». Then we have paper mills specialized in recycling, «they recycle less than a million special grades, along with other grades, and their equipment allows to treat the paper-based packaging that was laminated with other, more innovative packaging, coupled with an aluminium, plastic or wax film. The condition is that this material is detected and reaches the paper mills in clearly identified batches».
Criticalities and recommendations
In these new guidelines, Cepi addresses the issue of technical recyclability in paper mill, also indicating the critical parameters of a paper packaging recycling plant. To be recycled, a packaging «must be prone to be pulped, the yield of the fibrous matter must be sufficiently high, the recycled pulp must be homogeneous in mechanical terms, with no problems related to micro stickies due to the adhesives of the original product; while non-paper materials must be able to be separated, so that they do not remain with the fibres».
As for the recommendations, the guidelines indicate several parameters, «we have recommendations on laminates and alternative barriers, and on adhesives, ink, patinas, paints, and special papers, and on the use of chemical products. All these parameters are part of the life cycle concerning the product’s eco-design». The guidelines have already been translated into several European languages and have caused a lot of attention, as well as raising the awareness of transformers and brand owners above all. Of course, Cepi’s work does not stop there. «We will revise them together with the other organizations that supported them – Sitpa, Fefco, and ACE – and present updates to the European Paper Recycling Council, where we address recyclability issues in the more general value chain» concludes Leberle. «We received many requests from companies that are interested in testing new products for packaging, and this is going to be the future development of the project. Meanwhile we are working to harmonize testing methods so that they can be followed by material recyclability assessments». You can download the guidelines for recyclability of base paper packaging from Cepi’s website.