The key role of corrugated cardboard in delivering a stronger circular economy

The corrugated cardboard industry remains highly committed to achieving the objectives of the PPWR. We sit down with Saverio Mayer, CEO Europe Smurfit Kappa and VP of Fefco, to discuss the proposed changes - and why recycling and reuse must be seen as complementary


The European Federation of Corrugated Board Manufacturers, FEFCO, is a non-profit organisation representing the interests of the industry across Europe and addressing a wide range of issues, from technical topics to economical questions.

31 Aug 2023

Why is the corrugated cardboard industry so important in Europe and what benefits does it bring?

Corrugated cardboard packaging matters because it plays an essential role in everyday life: it serves to protect the products we all buy and consume, be it when they are being transported, stored or sold.

In fact 75% of all goods on their journey from producer to customer are transported and protected using corrugated cardboard. It protects and preserves even the most fragile goods, which helps the EU’s environmental goals because damaged goods create pressure on the planet through wasted food, fuel and other resources. Trade, both within Europe and beyond, could barely survive without it.

As an industry, corrugated cardboard is a highly localised and productive business that Europe should be doing everything to support, not undermine. It has a massive European economic and social footprint, often in the most deprived areas.

This is not a sector dominated by one or two mega-corporations. It involves many smaller companies often embedded in local communities and creating large numbers of jobs and economic activity there. There are over 660 plants located across Europe employing 100,000 people directly and creating a further 270,000 jobs indirectly. 

It is also arguably the greenest of all packaging materials, with a recycling rate of over 90% for cardboard and an average recycled content of 89% for corrugated cardboard. Our high-tech, high-performance recycling system makes us a frontrunner in the EU’s race to achieve circularity. We also use a high proportion of local raw material The main raw material for corrugated cardboard packaging is recycled paper. The remaining fibres in our packaging come from sustainably managed forests. According to data, 90.6% of forests owned or managed by the European pulp and paper industry are forest management certified.[1]

How is the corrugated cardboard sector working to reduce its carbon footprint?

We already have a strong track record on circularity and are committed to helping reduce our carbon footprint even further. We have pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 at the latest. This ambition covers the sector’s full carbon footprint and aims to work with the entire value chain, from cradle-to-grave, to achieve this goal.

Corrugated cardboard has some inherently circular properties: it is made from a renewable, bio-based feedstock, and is biodegradable. The corrugated cardboard industry wants to go even further and improve material efficiency and circularity, meeting customer requirements by using the minimum amount of materials while maximising protection of the product, and with the highest degree of recycled content. We work closely with our customers to optimise the value chain (this covers how packaged goods are transported, stored and handled), the design of packaging solutions and production processes.

Our sector also aims to improve its energy efficiency further and fully phase out fossil fuels from its energy mix. Various pathways are possible: the electrification of the heat supply (mainly via electric boilers), and the use of (gaseous) biofuels. Regarding the decarbonisation of the electricity supply, a corrugated cardboard plant can produce between 10% and 40% of its current electricity needs with onsite renewables, depending on its location.

Finally, the corrugated cardboard industry is working closely with suppliers to achieve their own circularity and decarbonisation goals - notably the paper sector.

What could policymakers learn from the work of the corrugated cardboard industry?

What the corrugated cardboard industry wants to see reflected in EU policy is a greater appreciation of the damage that efficient recycling avoids. Our industry is highly committed to reducing waste and our carbon footprint, as we have already explained, which is reflected in our high performance in terms of recyclability. Being aware of the need to reduce water use and transport in the life cycle of packaging is of utmost importance. Recycled cardboard boxes do not need anywhere near the same degree of washing, storage or extra transport, all of which increase fuel usage and emissions release. Our industry believes that recycling is an important aspect of circularity that should not be taken lightly.

Another aspect policymakers can learn from our industry is just how complicated the distribution business is, and that our constant efforts to improve logistics and rationalize delivery methods contribute to a more efficient and less wasteful use of resources.

Corrugated cardboard packaging plays an undeniable role in the transition towards a strong and circular European economy.

Can re-use and recycling co-exist in a sustainability seeking world?

They can and they must. Efficient recycling is undoubtedly the fastest route to circularity and carbon neutrality, but it should not be the only route. Other materials need other solutions, and this must be respected. PPWR must seek a balance between recycling and reuse that does not favour one and penalize the other. The irony of the proposal as it currently stands is that an excessive focus on reuse will lead to an upsurge in plastic – the very material consumers want to see reduced most of all – while devastating other packaging sectors like cardboard despite their powerful record on recycling.

Reuse and recycling are complementary, not mutually exclusive, and should be treated as such. Worryingly, this is not the way PPWR is heading. The reuse targets currently proposed risk compromising the objective of the EU’s Circular Economy Action Plan, which states that the review should “ensure that packaging on the EU market is reusable or recyclable in an economically viable way by 2030”. 

What changes need to be made to the PPWR to ensure the best possible boundaries to achieve a circular economy?

First and foremost, PPWR must safeguard the peaceful coexistence and effective complementarity of recycling and reuse. Any reuse targets should be realistic, achievable, positive for the environment, good for society, and should not damage the competitiveness of European industry. 

Waste prevention measures may be needed, but where they introduce market restrictions these should be assessed to ensure they do not worsen the environmental impact or increase food waste. Mandatory recycled content limits should be set only for plastic packaging, and prevention targets and excessive packaging limits should be realistic and promote competitiveness. 

How can corrugated cardboard help the wider world in its bid to reduce plastics usage?

In PPWR the reusable packaging that will replace corrugated is plastics. The worst thing Europe could do is make rules that inadvertently favour plastic over other sectors like corrugated cardboard. Above all, the EU must not treat plastic crates as though they are a cleaner, safer and greener alternative to cardboard. They absolutely are not. Official Eurostat data are needed to make a proper evaluation and also consider market, society and industry realities.

The results from recent studies[2] - all backed up by credible, peer-reviewed research - speak for themselves: recyclable corrugated boxes emit 34.79 Kg of CO2, while reusable plastic crates (even if used 24 times) emit 47.94 Kg of CO2; corrugated cardboard boxes outperform reusable plastic crates in 10 out of 15 environmental impact categories, including CO2 and water usage. Plastic crates must be reused at least 63 times to be sustainable; if corrugated cardboard is replaced for e-commerce, over 3,5 billion plastic boxes will be produced and placed on the EU market in the first year of implementation (2040).

The corrugated cardboard industry remains highly committed to achieving the objectives of the PPWR, and therefore hopes that the final PPWR text will consider the potential risks of increased plastic pollution, which would go against the very spirit of the Regulation and of the Green Deal.

Saverio Mayer, CEO Europe Smurfit Kappa and VP FEFCO
Saverio Mayer, CEO Europe Smurfit Kappa and VP FEFCO