The topic of recycled fibers versus virgin fibers is an important and increasingly relevant one in today's society. As the world becomes more aware of the need to reduce waste and minimize the environmental impact of our actions, the use of recycled fibers has become more widespread.
Many companies are tempted to go for recycled fibers as a supposedly more sustainable option. However, neither recycled fibers nor virgin fibers are inherently better or worse than the other. Both recycled and virgin fibers play an important role in sustainable packaging and a circular economy. At delfort, each of our specialty papers begins with high-quality renewable raw materials that are sustainably sourced. We use primarily virgin wood fibers for food and consumer goods packaging papers and are also exploring ways to introduce, where safe and appropriate, recycled fibers into our specialty packaging papers.
We sat down with Annica Ahlstedt Larsson (Head of Product Quality) and Anders Norén (Director of Sustainability) from Södra and delfort’s Peter Donnabauer (Head of Fiber Procurement) to speak about recycled and virgin fibers and why both are necessary components of a sustainable packaging strategy.
Från vänster skogsinspektor Åsa Andersson, Joakim Carlsson, Katarina Carlsson
Recycled fibers are fibers that are made from materials that have previously been used and then processed and transformed into new fibers. On the other hand, virgin fibers are fibers that are made from renewable raw materials such as wood pulp.
Products made from recycled paper are sometimes perceived as more sustainable than products made with virgin fibers. Is this perception true?
Ms. Larsson and Mr. Norén from Södra:
In the packaging industry, some decision-makers have been taught that using recycled paper is the only sustainable option for paperboard packaging materials. However, without virgin fiber, there would be no paper recycling. Recycled fiber and virgin complement each other. Virgin pulp plays a crucial role in creating high-quality, durable, and sustainable paper packaging. Virgin pulp, made from responsibly managed forests and mills, provides a range of benefits that cannot be achieved with recycled fibers alone. Virgin fibers and recycled fibers each have their place in packaging.
What role do virgin fibers play in packaging?
Ms. Larsson and Mr. Norén from Södra:
Recycled fibers can’t be recycled indefinitely. Fibers become more and more depleted in strength with every trip through the recycling loop. In the case of paper-based packaging, fibers can be recycled 5-7 times. But over time, the process of collecting, de-inking and cleaning degrades and weakens the fibers to the point they are no longer usable. To maintain the supply of high-quality paper, we must continually contribute virgin fiber into the circular system.
Natural fibers from well-managed resources are by their nature sustainable and both virgin and recycled are great alternatives to fossil-based packaging materials. The important aspect of virgin fibers is that they come from sustainably managed forestry.
delfort uses predominantly virgin fibers in the production of our specialty paper products. What are the benefits of using virgin fibers?
Mr. Donnabauer from delfort:
At delfort, our focus is on developing lightweight specialty papers that require a pure and strong fiber structure which can currently be best achieved with virgin fiber. While the use of recycled fibers is becoming more widespread in many industries there are still some products that require the use of virgin fibers in order to meet safety and regulatory requirements.
Virgin fibers also have clear advantages when it comes to surface qualities for ensuring optimum print results in gravure printing. Additionally, in some markets, there are restrictions on the use of recycled fibers in sensitive industries that we operate in such as food, tobacco, and pharmaceuticals.
When it comes to product safety, virgin fibers have the benefit of a secure starting point – we can track the origins of the fibers. Virgin fibers are clean, safe, and hygienic and therefore fulfill all the strict requirements for food-contact packaging. In addition to product safety, we must also consider the influence of the packaging material on the contents. Especially in terms of taste and odor. Here, virgin fibers also have an advantage.
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Peter Donnabauer, Head of Corporate Procurement Fiber Materials
Peter has been part of team delfort for more than 24 years. During this time, he has been responsible for fiber sourcing along with his team. Together, they improve our strict diligence systems for pulp sourcing, risk mitigation management, and implementation of forest certifications. Peter enforces our full commitment to zero deforestation and combatting illegal logging by procuring our fibers exclusively from sustainably managed sources.
Södra is a large forest industry group that creates products and services for a global market and contributes to the growth of the Swedish economy. They have control over the entire value chain, from seed to customer and promote sustainable development in all stages.
Thank you to Ms. Larsson and Mr. Norén for participating in this interview!
Annica Ahlstedt Larsson, Head of Product Quality at Södra
Annica has been working with Södra for more than 25 years in different areas reaching from Innovation to Production. She is now heading the work with Product Quality at Södra Cell´s three pulp mills and she is also responsible for the Technical Customer Service including Sustainability Information.
Anders Norén, Director of Sustainability at Södra
Anders has worked within the forest industry for the last 8 years and with Sustainability at Södra since 2021. He is overall responsible for sustainability at Södra, which includes sustainability ambition and strategy, long-term targets, improvement programs, and reporting.