Statement courtesy of the European Carton Makers Association

With the adoption of the Circular Economy Package in mid-2018 and the discussions related to the development of the soon-to-be adopted Single Use Plastics Directive, the recyclability of packaging has come to the forefront of public debate. Specifically, in relation to the folding cartons manufacturing sector, questions have been raised in respect to the recyclability of folding cartons that incorporate a polymeric layer. In this context, the European Carton Makers Association (ECMA) would like to confirm the following facts and background.

The role of packaging

Packaging is essential to an efficient supply chain for consumer products. It has three roles in protecting, presenting and preserving products to minimize waste at each stage of the production and delivery process. Within the three roles, paperboard products also enhance the consumer’s experience by providing important information about the product, being easy to open and providing effective storage of the product in the consumer’s home.

From a protection perspective, folding cartons are especially effective in facilitating efficient shipping and storage through to the point of sale. Specifically, for the food sector, folding cartons help minimize food waste by reducing product damage, food deterioration and premature spoilage. With respect to effective presentation of products, folding cartons have strong aesthetic features, created by gluing or printing processes, to enable brands to create shelf stand out and drive consumer engagement. It is important that the many benefits of folding cartons in a variety of market sectors are fully recognized. It also is key to note that folding cartons are fully recyclable. This statement also applies to ‘coated board’ cartons; made from carton board which incorporates a coating or laminate from a polymer and/or a hot or cold foil to create added functionality or aesthetic value.

Contribution to the circular economy

Turns out that 100% of the carton board fibers used to produce folding cartons are obtained from renewable, non-fossil raw materials (wood fibers and cellulose and/or processed recovered paper). All of these materials used for the production of folding cartons in Europe come from sustainable and, in most cases, certified forestry management schemes (FSC, PEFC). It should be pointed out that forest areas are growing, with a 100% increase of European forests since 1950.

Folding carton packaging is an important example of the practical implementation of a circular economy in that the use of renewable materials and a well-functioning recycling system bring great environmental benefits. In addition, the replanting of forestry for the production of carton board facilitates the capture and sequestration of CO2. Furthermore, paperboard packaging provides structural strength in the shipping packaging, thus reducing the shipping case fiber requirements and improving the overall environmental profile of the total package.

Functional barriers

Some products require specific barrier requirements to be incorporated into the packaging design to further protect the product which cannot be provided by carton board alone; for example, to provide a moisture barrier or prevent migration of gases. Depending on the product application and functional requirements, an additional packaging material will be incorporated into the pack design to provide this barrier, which could be of fossil or biogenic origin. Such combinations (known as “coated cartons”) tend to have a very small percentage of coating (often a polymer) applied to the carton board and are preferable to completely plastic-based designs, due to the substantial reduction in plastic use provided by the dual-material solution and can be recycled.

Cartons are fully recyclable

Carton board has a proven reputation for being a sustainable and fully recyclable material. The general public, who are largely already educated that carton board is fully recyclable, also should know that carton board can, and should be, placed into existing recycling collection systems. This also is true for the recyclability of cartons with a polymeric layer. All folding cartons currently are successfully recycled in conventional recycling mills, where there is good access to water for the fibers. At the same time, the folding carton manufacturing sector is working on the development of non-fossil/bio-based alternative solutions for coatings. However, it should be noted that this is not actually needed from the recyclability perspective for folding cartons.

Coated cartons are valuable resources

Coated cartons should not be considered a “composite” material. When laminated or extruded coated board combinations are used, these combinations of packaging materials can be effectively separated in the recycling process, with the result that paper fibers are recovered and, to a large extent, recycled into new materials. This is not dependent on how thick or thin the coating layer is, as long as it is an optimized one so that water can separate it from the fibers. In addition, nearly 100% of the fibers are recovered in the pulping process, thus recovering a valuable material for reuse in another product. Cartons with a good fiber quality and a polymeric layer are valuable to the recycling infrastructure in Europe and always should be entered into the recycling chain. Not to do so would mean that valuable fiber material would be lost and, because the fibers can be recycled many times, recycling always is the preferred option.

Why we need to improve collection and recycling

The contamination of the recovered paper flow can come from various sources and should, in general, be limited as far as possible. In certain countries, the separate collection of paper and board from other materials still is not fully implemented. The volume of anonymous underground collection in large European cities is unfortunately increasing. The communication toward households on how to separate in the different streams, therefore, needs to be further improved.

This overview of facts represents the position of the European folding carton industry and should be a basis for further deliberation and action around sustainability and recycling.

ECMA, the European Carton Makers Association, is the official organization for carton businesses, national carton associations and suppliers to the carton industry. ECMA provides the European folding carton industry with a dynamic business network. With its seat in The Hague, The Netherlands, and an office in Brussels, ECMA represents around 500 carton producers in nearly all countries in the European Economic Area. ECMA members account for around 70% of the total carton market volume in Europe and a current workforce of about 50,000 people. Learn more at