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Deconstructing the Recycled vs. Virgin Fiber Paperboard Argument

by The Dieline on 01/14/2022 | 4 Minute Read

By Nathan Pajka and Mark Beamesderfer

In the packaging industry, some decision-makers have been taught from an early age that using recycled paper is the only sustainable option for paperboard packaging materials. Companies broadcast their commitment to the environment by setting packaging material goals that include reducing the number of packaging materials used for their products as well as targeting a percentage of post-consumer waste in their fiber-based packaging.

The recycled paperboard market has done an excellent job educating the brand owner, the converter, and the customer on the many benefits of reusing paperboard fiber in the packaging life cycle. As proof, in both the EU and the US, paper and paperboard packaging recycling rates are over 80%, far outshining those of other packaging materials.

So, if recycled paperboard is considered environmentally friendly, what about paperboard made from virgin fiber? Is fresh fiber paperboard less eco-friendly because it’s created by cutting down trees? We must save the trees, right?

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The answers to these questions reveal several misunderstandings in the paperboard and packaging industry. 

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), forests are home to most of the world's terrestrial biodiversity and contain almost as much carbon as is in the atmosphere. They also provide livelihoods for over one billion people and make vital contributions to our survival.

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Sustainably managing how we utilize forests will allow us to optimally benefit from what they offer, including timber for building homes and food packaging that can contribute to food security. Wood and wood fiber, responsibly harvested from sustainably managed forests, are one of the only industrial-scale, 100% renewable products in the world today. Therefore, it's critical to understand where the fiber originates to ensure compliance with agreed-upon or targeted sustainability initiatives. Recycled paperboard, while sustainable in that it contributes to the circular economy, may contain pulp from unsustainable sources.

When paper fibers are recycled, they become more and more depleted in strength with every trip through the recycling loop, increasing the amount of fiber necessary to create packaging that meets strength and stiffness specifications. Once fibers are recycled several times, they are typically not strong enough to be utilized in paperboard manufacturing.

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On the other hand, here's what we know about virgin fiber paperboards:

  • It's naturally much stronger and can maintain documented and certified origins.
  • They're tailored towards specific end uses, some of which require properties that recycled fiber often cannot match at the same rate, such as high brightness and good printability.
  • They use fibers that are more integral—meaning we require less fiber to create packages of equal or better strength as compared to containers made with recycled fibers.

Ironically, recycled paperboards depend on the presence of virgin fiber in the recycled pulp stream to replenish structurally depleted recycled pulp and compensate for papers and boards that are not returned to circulation, whether due to poor sorting of recycling or contamination. This loss of fibers from the recycling loop is unavoidable—not everything can get recycled. According to the Two Sides initiative, Europe, the paper recycling world leader, is approaching its practical maximum recycling rate of 78%. Virgin fiber keeps the recycling loop going—without it, there would be no recycled fiber, and paper product availability would wane.

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Finally, some countries have placed restrictions on recycled paperboards for specific packaging applications. Recycled paperboard pulp may sometimes contain trace materials from their former packaging lives, including remnants of inks, solvents, mineral oils, and other contaminants, which may pose a packaging safety risk for food, healthcare, and beauty care products.

This risk is often mitigated by incorporating some piece of primary barrier packaging, such as bags, pouches, or other containers inside the recycled paperboard outer carton. That adds to the amount of packaging material used for a product. Plus, these barriers regularly get made using plastic—which is at odds with many brand owners’ sustainability initiatives of reducing packaging waste, moderating their overall carbon footprint, and increasing the recyclability of their products. Virgin fiber paperboards can be very clean, safe, and hygienic, thereby alleviating the risks associated with some recycled paperboard. They can also help ensure compliance with local regulations relating to the acceptable use of recycled material for particular end uses.

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Both recycled and virgin fiber paperboards are excellent alternatives to plastics and other unsustainable packaging materials. They both promote and perpetuate a circular economy—working together and relying upon one another. We, as a society, must insist on the sustainable management and harvesting of our forests while implementing comprehensive and effective recycling programs and using the correct packaging materials for the appropriate applications. That way, our world will never run out of sustainable paperboard packaging or the trees from which we are derived.


Nathan Pajka, the Sustainability Specialist for Metsa Board Americas, works with the Product Safety and Sustainability team in Finland to translate the team’s objectives to the Americas and serve as their sustainability expert in the region. Contact him at Nathan.pajka@metsagroup.com.

Mark Beamesderfer, Packaging Services Director for Metsa Board Americas, has over 28 years of experience in design, prepress, print, and converting. Contact him at mark.beamesderfer@metsagroup.com.

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