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Creating a circular economy for the packaging industry


Single-use packaging exemplifies a “take-make-waste” linear economy. A move to a circular economy approach, where waste is minimal and resources are preserved, would necessitate more reusing, repurposing, and recycling of packaging materials to avoid them going straight to landfill or composting.

Recycled paper is one of the most important raw materials. Packaging supplier, Swiftpak, say that efficient recycling could supply the paper-cardboard industry with almost 69% of the resources it needs. Recycling paper reduces the need to cut down forests to generate virgin wood pulp, which is used to manufacture paper and cardboard. One ton of recycled paper is estimated to save 7000 gallons of water, 463 gallons of oil, and 17 trees.

In early 2021, after the pandemic, prices of wastepaper in Europe climbed steadily due to increased demand as well as a shortage of supply. The increase in online shopping and bi-weekly emptying of home recycling bins slowed the rate at which paper waste was supplied to paper mills. The cardboard shortage was named the hunt for “beige gold”.


Then in 2022 there was 6 months of continuous price increases for all grades of old corrugated cardboard in the first half of the year, followed by drastic price decreases in August, September and October, with prices levelling out in November and December.

Price volatility is only one of the issues facing the paper for recycling market. The war in Ukraine and the cost of energy have impacted it. Seasonality also affects it, with demands for packaging falling with the arrival of Christmas but collection rates for cardboard recycling rising over the holiday.  The Confederation of European Paper Industries (CEPI) reported that the collection of paper for recycling decreased by 5% in 2022, to 52 million tonnes with a fall in the recycling rate in Europe from 72.8% in 2021 to 70.5% in 2022. This was attributed to the economic downturn in Europe. The EU has committed to recycle 76% of all paper consumed by 2030.

Some innovative companies are addressing this recycling challenge. In 2017, paper and packaging company, James Cropper, opened a plant to recycle 500 million coffee cups a year. Their process separates the plastic cup lining from the paper fibres so that 95% of the cup waste can be converted back in to paper. James Cropper has been developing a supply chain of used paper cups in partnership with waste management companies like Recorra and retailers like Selfridges. However this is only one of two facilities in the UK with the capability to recycle paper cups. Therefore it is not surprising that only 1% of the 2.5 billion cups used every year in the UK are recycled.


Another approach is to switch the source of pulp for paper making away from wood to alternative sustainable materials and German company, Creapaper is using grass. They take hay, clean it and mechanically shred it to get fibers of a suitable length to be used to produce their grasspaper product. Their process is chemical-free, does not need water, requires no trees to be cut down and saves 23% CO2 emissions compared to conventional wood based paper and 15% compared to recycled paper. Currently they can replace 30-50% of the fibre in paper with grass fibre and the remainder is wood pulp. Grasspaper can be recycled in the usual paper recycling streams and it is suitable for packaging food, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.

Embracing the circular economy for sustainable packaging offers a promising roadmap for a greener, more resource-efficient future.

We at SAL – Strategic Allies Ltd – collaborate closely with clients from various industries to offer sustainable and environmentally friendly solutions tailored to their specific needs, helping them achieve their Net-Zero goals. We welcome your inquiries and would be delighted to have a conversation with you. Please reach out to John Allies at john@strategicallies.co.uk.