4evergreen: In Search of Perfection in Packaging Circularity

What began as a series of workshops has turned into a collaborative powerhouse with an ambitious goal: to raise Europe’s recycling rate for fiber-based packaging to 90 percent. The key to achieving this goal? Bringing together the entire value chain of fiber-based packaging to serve as a global model with measurable deliverables.

Paper360° spoke to Susanne Haase, program director of 4evergreen, a recently-formed initiative of the Confederation of European Paper Industries (Cepi). The initiative has been designed to boost and promote the contribution of fiber-based packaging in the circular bioeconomy in Europe. Haase will also serve on the Executive Panel at TAPPICon 2022 (see sidebar.)

P360°: In a nutshell, can you tell us what 4evergreen is?

Susanne Haase: 4evergreen is a cross-industry alliance working on perfecting the circularity of fiber-based packaging to contribute to a climate-neutral and sustainable society. It brings together more than 90 members from across the fiber-based packaging value chain. Our common goal is to raise the overall recycling rate of fiber-based packaging in Europe to 90 percent by 2030.

When and why was the alliance formed? What were the main drivers?

The roots of 4evergreen go back to 2019 when Cepi, the host of the alliance, arranged five workshops to assess the impact of the European Union’s Single-Use Plastics Directive (SUPD) on the fiber-based value chain.

Cepi welcomed a mixed group of participants—from brand owners, retailers, technology providers, material suppliers, waste management companies and collectors, packaging converters, research institutions, and Cepi members. The group discussed the challenges of providing sustainable and recyclable solutions that lower the environmental impact and boost the circularity of fiber-based packaging.

The workshops explored specific challenges, such as recyclability testing or design for recycling. At the end of the series of workshops, participants agreed there was still work ahead and that the only way to find innovative solutions would be to work on these together. Nestlé then called on participants to continue the critical discussions in a more structured setting; this is how 4evergreen was formed.

4evergreen program

How is progress so far? What milestones have been achieved?

Since the alliance started, our work has been characterized by intense collaboration, which has taken the industry into uncharted territory when it comes to recycling fiber-based packaging. We have more than 130 experts coming together in four technical workstreams, sharing best practices and building knowledge:

  • WS-1 (Recyclability Evaluation Protocol): So far, 52 packaging samples have been tested and evaluated in accordance with their suitability to be recycled at a standard paper recycling mill to provide a comprehensive toolkit to boost recyclability validation. These packaging samples broadly represent all packaging solutions on the market today. We will develop two additional parts related to the recyclability of fiber-based packaging that requires deinking and or enhanced recycling technologies.
  • WS-2 (Circularity by Design Guidelines): To date, explicit design recommendation tables have been created based on the expert consensus opinion to ensure packaging is designed for recycling. We prepared these guidelines for publication in February, 2022, and we are excited to present this work to those in the industry. As always, we will be regularly updating the guidelines.
  • WS-3 (Collection and Sorting Guidelines): Until now, collection and sorting practices across the EU have been investigated and summarized to elucidate best practices and anticipate the impact of the future regulatory challenges on the EU level.
  • WS-4 (Innovation): Our innovation workstream focuses on spurring innovative technologies. We have initiated three sub-projects aiming to find new ways to streamline the recycling process and reduce material loss. The projects focus on:
    1. Sorting technologies—for example: photonics and combinations, artificial intelligence powered sorting and robotics, plus tracers and marking-based techniques.
    2. Recycling technologies to identify the best technology or combinations of technologies to recycle each type of barrier material and reach the optimal balance between increased fiber yield and quality.
    3. Comparative recyclability testing to understand the fate of each fraction in the fiber stock and waste or process waters; which materials are compatible with which mills; and potential improvements needed by recycling mills.
4evergreen has identified a series of intermediary targets related to recycling
4evergreen has identified a series of intermediary targets related to recycling of fiber-based packaging from household, out-of-home, and on-the-go consumption.

Is membership of the initiative only available in European countries or are you global?

4evergreen is focused on the European context, with our primary work being toward improving the recycling rate of fiber-based packaging in Europe. Having said this, we hope that our impact will extend beyond the European region. We welcome non-European members and we believe that our work can become a benchmark for the industry across the globe.

Who are the members? How many do you have and what types of industries are they from? Can you give some examples?

4evergreen members are spread across the fiber-based packaging value chain. We now count about 90 members across the several industry segments:

  • pulp, paper, and board manufacturers and recyclers
  • non-fiber material suppliers (e.g., inks, adhesives, or coatings)
  • packaging producers & converters
  • Fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) brand-owners
  • waste management companies and collectors
  • technology providers (e.g., machinery, collection, and recycling solutions)
  • research institutes

Any company worldwide linked to the fiber-based packaging value chain is welcome to join 4evergreen, as long as they are committed to producing low-carbon and circular solutions that will raise the overall recycling rate of fiber-based packaging to 90 percent by 2030.

What advantages are there to becoming a member?

Our members provide the expertise for our various deliverables and have the opportunity to shape the protocol and guidelines through their expertise. They also benefit from an unparalleled network within the alliance and have access to the vast amount of data and intelligence that has been developed within the alliance so far. The more companies that join the alliance, the more representative our deliverables are of all links in the value chain and the stronger our voice is to drive innovation in the industry.

Our members join because they recognize the unique value that 4evergreen has, bringing together the entire value chain and being driven by a determination to be part of the solution to some of the world’s most pressing challenges. To support our work and encourage disruptive and challenging ideas, we have also been inviting start-ups to join the alliance.

What is the long-term goal of 4evergreen?

By joining 4evergreen, our members have demonstrated their commitment to contribute to a climate-neutral and sustainable society. As I said, our common goal is to raise the overall recycling rate of fiber-based packaging in Europe to 90 percent by 2030.

To reach that overall objective, 4evergreen has identified four intermediary targets to meet by 2025:

  1. The industry recognizes 4evergreen’s Recyclability Evaluation Protocol and Circularity by Design guidelines for fiber-based packaging.
  2. Separate collection streams are available for all fiber-based packaging types, including for those used in household, out-of-home, and on-the-go consumption.
  3. All Paper for Recycling (PfR) is sorted according to the different paper and board categories specified in the EN643 standard.
  4. All collected fiber-based packaging, specifically from household, out-of-home, and on-the-go consumption, is recycled.

What are the biggest challenges you are having to deal with?

The past two years have been challenging for everyone, and the situation we have found ourselves in—not being able to meet physically—has undoubtedly made our work more difficult. The biggest challenge we have faced is entering uncharted territory. We need to pave the way to achieve our goals, finding compromises and bridging the gaps between different perspectives, which has brought some unexpected moments along the way.

Creating the guidelines and protocol takes time. However, we can still be proud of our members for the fast progress they’re making, given the scale of this project—and, again, the fact that this endeavor is the first of its kind.

Learn more about 4evergreen at 4evergreenforum.eu.