Packaging for a low-carbon future

Richard Hands, chief executive of the Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment (ACE) UK writes about packaging for a low-carbon future.

Richard Hands, chairman of the Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment (ACE) UK writes about packaging for a low-carbon future.

The latest UK Greenhouse Gas Emissions data for 2010 is a wake-up call to the fact that the UK is in danger of losing sight of its climate goals.

The provisional figures published by the Department of Energy & Climate Change show that last year, UK emissions of the six greenhouse gases covered by the Kyoto Protocol were 2.8 per cent higher than in 2009, with emissions of CO2 (the main greenhouse gas) having risen by 3.8 per cent. This is in stark contrast to the 2009 figures, which reported a fall in emissions of 8.7 per cent compared to 2008.

Climate scientists calculate that the world has only a few decades to reduce emissions before there is so much carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere that a dangerous rise in global temperature is inevitable. Reducing the amount of CO2 our nation emits into the atmosphere, however, is no mean feat.

While the task at hand can seem overwhelming for businesses wanting to lower their carbon footprint, choosing sustainable, renewable raw materials for their products is a good place to start. Responsibly sourced timber and paper products are nowadays widely available, and for a vast range of applications, from building materials, to furniture, to packaging.

Forests play a vital role in the fight against climate change and what better time to remind ourselves of this than the UN International Year of Forests!

Carbon capture – the old fashioned way

A practical and sustainable solution to lower carbon levels are natural carbon sinks, such as the ever-growing Scandinavian forests used to make paper and paper-based products, which include beverage cartons. Research from the University of Helsinki, Finland, found that the need for ever-growing areas of European forests to be conserved for biodiversity reasons, together with the demand for end timber products, has led to such effective forest management that today’s European forests are actually increasing in value as carbon sinks.

Well-managed forests produce a greater yield of wood per hectare and thus increasingly absorb CO2 from the atmosphere.

This carbon is then retained within the tree and the products subsequently made from its wood, such as the beverage carton, for the whole life of the product. The product can then be recycled or used for energy recovery at the end of its life.

Furthermore, because in managed forests trees are replaced or replenished at a rate equivalent or greater than their use, wood fibre is a renewable resource that can be used by industry with low environmental impact.

Responsible forestry

Member companies of the Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment (ACE) UK – Elopak, SIG Combibloc and Tetra Pak – are committed to ensuring that the wood fibre in their cartons – 75% of the package, on average – is sourced from forests that are responsibly managed.

The beverage carton manufacturers and their paperboard suppliers have put rigorous traceability systems in place, so that they can trace the wood fibre back to the forest area it came from.

These systems are independently verified and certified annually according to ‘Chain of Custody’ standards set by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and/or Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC).

Within Europe, 100% of the paperboard used by Elopak, SIG Combibloc and Tetra Pak comes from paper mills that have an FSC certified chain-of-custody in place.

Combine the benefits of a renewable raw material with recyclability and transport efficiency, and it’s no surprise that the beverage carton is repeatedly shown to be a low-carbon packaging choice in life-cycle studies across the world

Renewable by nature

In addition to helping reduce CO2 when they are growing, the trees used in paperboard production also provide a source of renewable energy after they have been harvested, helping to minimise the European carton industry’s net emissions of CO2.

The bark, sawdust and other by-products, such as black liquor resulting from the logging and pulp-making process, which would have otherwise gone to waste, are used for bio-energy production.

This renewable energy accounts for around 80% of the total energy needs of the four European paper mills producing paperboard for beverage cartons. Some of the mills even sell surplus green energy from this process, helping to further minimise fossil fuel consumption for the local community.

Growing potential of wood-based products

So, forest industries with responsible management practices are in a good position to help combat climate change via carbon sequestration.

But, to ensure they continue to help reduce Europe’s CO2 emissions,, we need to make firm commitments to procuring sustainably-produced wood and paper products above those which use less climate-friendly resources.

This way, we will be taking an important step towards increasing the world’s forest biomass and thus our ability to remove carbon from the atmosphere.

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