Story | 05/18/2022 10:48:02 | 7 min Read time

Could the move to fibre-based packaging escalate deforestation?

Asa Butcher

Editor, Spoon Agency

The adoption of fibre-based packaging is predicted to surge over the next few decades by an estimated USD 20 billion, according to a new forward-looking study by the research agency Smithers and UPM Specialty Papers. With more brands transitioning from non-renewable materials to fibre-based packaging, what will be the implication for forests?

By 2040, UPM experts estimate that there might be up to 4.7 million primary food packages being used annually, which is roughly double the current amount according to Euromonitor figures. However, industry professionals surveyed in the Sustainable Food Packaging report believe up to 40% could be fibre-based. Is there a risk that brands could contribute to deforestation if all these packages are produced using fibre?

To support this ongoing transition to fibre-based alternatives, it is essential to ensure the recycling rate of packaging and that trees are sourced and used efficiently and responsibly, which is the role of sustainable forest management. We spoke with two experts to gain a better understanding of the situation and recyclability challenges.

Read more about Smither's Sustainable Food Packaging 2040 Trend Report

Investing in forest growth

“Of the total forest volume in Europe, the harvested volume of 1.6% is always lower than the annual growth. It’s far less than anybody could imagine,” emphasises Anna Maija Wessman, Secretary General of the European Pulp Industry Sector AISBL (EPIS). “It’s like an investment; you leave it there and it keeps growing. Over the last 30 years, the growing stock has increased by almost two-thirds.”

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, land conversion to agriculture and illegal logging are primarily responsible for most global deforestation. In fact, today some 10% of that small percentage of harvested wood goes to paper and board, with it unlikely to change as demand grows. “With the livelihood of forest-based industries at stake, it is in their best interest to ensure that their forestry processes do not contribute to the problem and that nothing is wasted,” she adds.

Anna-Maija Wessmann, Secretary General of the European Pulp Industry Sector AISBL (EPIS) 

While there is growing demand for fibre-based packaging, it is worth noting that the demand drivers of the forest industry are shifting. For example, global demand for graphic papers has been declining while demand in other end-uses like packaging papers has been taking over.

Chain-of-custody ensures sustainable origin

“Using fibre-based materials should always be on the terms of our forests, meaning we do not compromise their viability,” states Sami Lundgren, VP, UPM Responsibility. Forest management certification and chain of custody are two significant ways to ensure supply chain transparency and to ensure your brand does not contribute to deforestation.

At present, around a third of the world’s forests are considered “working forests” and a third of those are certified for sustainable forest management; this means that in total, 10% of the world’s forests are certified. Yet, when it comes to those used by UPM globally, 100% of the wood is traceable to its origin.

Sami Lundgren, VP, UPM Responsibility

“Since 80% of our wood comes from third parties, the starting point is traceability to ensure that we are not causing deforestation,” says Lundgren. “If there is no tracing system or chain of custody, then we cannot accept that wood. We are working to ensure all our suppliers meet the criteria. Nowadays, credibility comes with transparency.”



Using forests efficiently

In its entirety, a tree contributes towards more than 5,000 different products, including advanced materials like biofuels and biochemicals. The sap is even used in cosmetics, syrups and beverages, while the leaves can be used for essential oils and natural fabric dyes.

“What people don’t realise is that pulp production and sawmills are inherently linked. The best parts of the tree become timber for furniture, flooring and wooden construction, for example. Pulp, which may sometimes have been perceived as something negative, utilises sawmill waste, like chips and sawdust, as well as any trees felled during the first thinning,” Wessman explains.

UPM sees residues and side streams as valuable raw materials. UPM BioVerno Naptha, which is made from a residue of the pulp production process, can be used to replace fossil-based plastics in packaging, for example. Innovations like this can help satisfy growing demand for fibre-based products, such as packaging, while using each tree as efficiently as possible.

Ensuring a sustainable end-of-life for fibre-bases products

Lundgren notes that satisfying the increased demand for fibre-based solutions will require more than just sustainable forest management: “We must use these valuable raw materials as many times as possible by encouraging recyclability. We should also better understand the positive life cycle impacts of wood-based products, which is why UPM is collaborating with top scientific institutes.

For example, a scientific report titled “Fossil carbon emission substitution and carbon storage effects of wood-based products” was published recently by the Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE) and the German Institut für Energie- und Umweltforschung Heidelberg (IFEU).

It is estimated that on average wood fibre can be recycled up to six times before it becomes too weak or short for further use in paper making. However, according to a study conducted by Graz University of Technology in Austria, fibre-based packaging material can be recycled at least 25 times without any negative effect on its mechanical properties.

The packaging industry alliance 4evergreen has been bringing the industry together to boost the recycling rate of fibre-based packaging in Europe from roughly 80% to 90% by 2030. Initiatives such as these are critical for ensuring the sustainable future of packaging; according to the Sustainable Food Packaging 2040 trend report, packaging professionals anticipate fibre-based packaging to approach circularity in two decades’ time.

By drawing on the waste hierarchy of prevent, reduce, reuse and recycle, Wessman observes that any predicted increase in fibre-based packaging will not mean depleting the world’s forest resources if we develop products with purpose, avoid overpackaging and design them to be adapted into the circular economy.

She adds, “We should also introduce sustainable forest management to new geographical areas, reforest, afforest and remember that growing forests absorb the most CO2.” Lundgren agrees, concluding by highlighting that over 30 years in Uruguay, UPM has created a new permanent carbon storage of 40 million tonnes.


Download the full Smither's Sustainable Food Packaging 2040 Trend Report



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