Going Green with Folding Cartons
As brands make their decisions on packaging formats and materials, sustainability is becoming an increasingly important attribute. While each packaging format offers its own environmental advantages, folding cartons and other paperboard-based formats stand out due to paperboard’s inherent recyclability and the renewability of trees.
Ben Markens, president of the Paperboard Packaging Council, explains that one of the strongest sustainability advantages of folding cartons is that trees are planted and harvested as a crop, and in many cases, specifically for the purpose of packaging manufacturing.
Markens explains that this helps set paperboard packaging apart, as the resources required to make these materials can be replaced. He points out that in general, seven trees are planted for every one harvested for use in the packaging stream, and explains that compared to 50 years ago, North America has more tree cover now, particularly in places designated for tree farms.
Getting the Word Out
While the paperboard packaging industry is well-aware of the sustainability benefits of folding cartons, it’s important to help both brands and consumers understand the environmental attributes of paperboard packaging.
Markens explains that detailing the recyclability attributes of paperboard can help counter the perception of the material being responsible for the destruction of trees. He points out that most folding cartons manufactured in North America from virgin paperboard come from trees that were specifically planted and harvested for that purpose.
Because that material is 100% recyclable, it can later be used in packaging or other applications that don’t require virgin pulp, further stretching how far a single tree will go.
Kerry Brown, VP of operations for Curtis Packaging, says that for many package printers, it’s important to identify suppliers that can prove they are FSC-certified. Through proper management and certification, he explains, converters can be assured paperboard materials were not the result of clear-cutting. Curtis Packaging, a folding carton printer and converter based in Sandy Hook, Conn., specializes in producing luxury brand packaging through environmentally responsible practices, including its status as a zero waste to landfill facility, its use of 100% renewable energy, sustainable sourcing and more.
Brown explains that despite Curtis Packaging’s strong reputation for sustainable practices, it’s still important for the company to get the word out. This means regularly sitting down with customers to explain their mission regarding the environment and how that mission can fit into a brand’s own messaging.
A Community Effort
While explaining the sustainability attributes of folding cartons can be an important part of a converter’s sales strategy, efforts are also in place to spread the word to the overall community.
Markens notes that the Paperboard Packaging Council has developed a program called “Trees Into Cartons, Cartons Into Trees,” which is often referred to as TICCIT. The program, which is aimed at fifth and sixth graders, uses science-based information to teach students about the importance of trees to the environment and the environmental contributions of paperboard packaging.
To take part in TICCIT, PPC member companies partner with an elementary school in their area to donate seeds or saplings for students to plant. Students plant the seeds or saplings in a paper-based carton, which they then plant in the ground. According to the TICCIT program, students then learn how the carton will biodegrade as the tree grows.
Part of the education process about the environmental aspects of folding cartons is breaking down stereotypes about paper and packaging materials. Brown explains that misconceptions surrounding the renewability of paperboard need to be addressed, as it is a key advantage the material has over other packaging formats.
A lot of people don’t realize paperboard is renewable unlike plastic,” he says. “They see paperboard and they see it as litter, but the reality is packaging will always be here — it’s the choice you make as to what kind.”
As the paperboard packaging industry works to spread its sustainability message, it is seeing the results of these efforts. Markens notes that last year, children planted around 16,000 saplings through the TICCIT program. Meanwhile, Brown explains that he’s seeing sustainably-minded brands turn to paperboard.
Brown notes that, in particular, he’s seeing a push for sustainable packaging from emerging brands and brands in the cosmetics market. Many, he says, are asking for post-consumer waste fibers — those that come from recycled materials, rather than virgin paper — with coatings designed to make them look and feel as premium as the virgin papers do.
“There is definitely a lot more conversation about it today,” Brown says. “We started doing this in 2003, and it has been a core value of our company since. Brands like Origins switched some time back, but others are now starting to follow their lead, strictly because of their new environmental positions.”
Brown states that in many instances, brands and consumers are pushing back on plastic due to concerns over ocean pollution. He explains that in addition to packaging, the push for paper-based materials has also extended to items such as shopping bags and straws.
“I see the industry as growing, and continuing to grow, and I don’t see that going the other way,” he says. “Brands are moving in and people are coming to us asking to replace their plastic packaging; there are edicts coming from very large brands to eliminate plastic by [a certain] date and it’s fantastic. For years we’ve seen plastic floating in the ocean and a lot of energy in regards to communities on the water banning plastic bags and straws; it is nice to see brands taking plastic out and replacing it with paperboard now.”
As consumers continue to demand sustainable attributes in packaging, the recyclability of folding cartons will be highly beneficial to that format. And with technical innovations in environmentally-friendly coatings, folding cartons can now be used to package liquids, extending their usage into new product lines.
“Brands are pushed by whatever consumers want,” Markens says. “That is really where change has to take place. The moment of truth is at retail. Consumers are starting to show a preference for paper, and that is having a pull through effect on the brand owners. Research we’ve seen says if a consumer touches a package, [approximately] 80% of the time it ends up in the cart. Folding cartons have an advantage because consumers are attracted to them.”