Pro Carton, the European Association of Carton and Cartonboard manufacturers, is a non-profit organisation representing over 40 cartonboard mills in 13 different European countries and North America, supplying more than 90% of Europe’s demand, as well as the carton converting industry across Europe.

Interview with Winfried Muehling, Director Marketing & Communication at Pro Carton.

Easy Engineering: What are the main areas of activity of the company?

Winfried Muehling: Pro Carton promotes the functionalities and benefits of cartons and cartonboard as a renewable, recyclable and competitive packaging material to brand owners, retailers, designers, the media and EU policymakers. It continues to build on the leading role of cartonboard as a circular packaging substrate, shown through 82% recycling rates and proven by independent research which confirms its fibres can be recycled more than 25 times with little to no loss of integrity. It not only protects the environment but ensures the safe delivery of products to consumers.

Pro Carton members fully support sustainable forest management as an important pillar to mitigate climate change, preserve biodiversity and forest growth.

Pro Carton provides its members with high-quality, detailed, monthly market statistics and informs them about industry developments and consumer perceptions based on its European consumer surveys. Pro Carton is a natural hub for networking, providing a link to other trade associations and international organisations, and advocates for the industry’s interests on sustainability and European legislations. Pro Carton highlights innovative applications of cartons and cartonboard by students, designers and brands through its annual awards programmes, attracting young designers to the industry.

E.E: What’s the news about new products?

W.M: As a not-for-profit association, Pro Carton does not sell products. However, it has a number of exciting ongoing and upcoming projects. In March, Pro Carton will announce the findings of its Carbon Footprint study, which will provide insights on the circularity credentials of the industry, and the example it is setting to the packaging industry. It will examine the efforts made within the industry to reduce its carbon footprint, and the progress made since the same study was carried out in 2018.

Early this year, Pro Carton also commissioned a pan-European consumer survey, in which over 5,000 European consumers were polled on the environment and packaging perceptions. The study provides hugely insightful information to help brands understand consumer demands, what they expect from brands when it comes to their packaging choices, as well as their concerns about the future, on topics such as the cost-of-living crisis, the economy and more. 

With ongoing innovations, cartonboard packaging enjoys ever more applications and product categories. New coating solutions are easy to recycle and provide improved barrier properties.

E.E: What are the ranges of products?

W.M: Depending on the product requirements brand owners can choose from a wide range of cartonboards from recycled or virgin fibres. Boards come with different thickness, stiffness, and whiteness. Depending on product requirements, coatings can be applied to provide different barrier properties to ensure extended shelf life for valuable products.

E.E: At what stage is the market where you are currently active?

W.M: We are operating in a market with stable growth. Consumers and retailers are increasingly demanding non fossil based packaging solutions made from renewable raw materials.

Our latest pan European consumer study shows a clear preference of cartonboard over plastic materials. This will provide a stable ground for sustainable growth.

E.E: What can you tell us about market trends?

W.M: The folding carton industry, like so many other sectors, has battled supply chain changes in the last couple of years, fuelled by a perfect storm of energy price surges, increased prices for raw materials, and a strong growth in demand. Yet none of these adverse factors have prevented the industry from meeting the surging demand for sustainable cartonboard packaging.

Thankfully, as the European cartonboard industry largely relies on the local supply of raw materials, such as wood fibres from sustainably managed forests – of which more than 90% is sourced from European forests, it is able to mitigate the risk of disruptions in the logistics process. At Pro Carton, we believe that increased collaboration within the supply chain will help to drive efficiencies as demand for fibre-based packaging continues to soar. 

This ever-increasing demand from increasingly eco-conscious consumers can be seen in the results of our recent European consumer survey. It demonstrated that despite the increased cost-of-living, protecting the environment is still at the top of the agenda for consumers. In fact, climate change ranked second only to the cost of living in the biggest challenges facing consumers. Meanwhile, two-thirds of consumers believe a sustainable lifestyle is more important compared with a year ago, nearly half (47%) of consumers had switched brands or products because of concerns about the packaging used, and a whopping 86% of consumers preferred cartonboard to plastic. 

These insights reveal consumers believe brand owners and packaging material suppliers have a responsibility to the planet and demonstrates the drivers behind the industry’s strong position, despite the ongoing challenges and environment in which we are operating.

E.E: What are the most innovative products marketed?

W.M: There are a number of highly innovative brands using cartonboard to create visually-appealing, versatile and innovative pack designs. This is constantly demonstrated in our European Carton Excellence Award, the most prestigious awards in cartonboard packaging.

For example, General/Snack Tomatoes, by Rutgers Printing and Packaging Solutions and winner of the coveted Carton of the Year prize, was a masterpiece of elementary and sustainable design, with a perfect balance between maximizing the visibility of the product while maintaining rigidity. Equally innovative were the Advent Calender Maison du Chocolat, a true work of art and Christmas cracker by DUCAJU®, while the Sanpellegrino® Aranciata Rossa by Nestlé and WestRock, delivered a minimalistic yet premium beverage carrier with 360 product visibility that utilised a remarkably clever functional and stable locking system.

We see an increasing demand for cartonboard in the laundry industry as well. Major brands launched their pods in easy to recycle carton boxes. The boxes come with additional functionality such as child protection.

To see examples of more award winning packs and gain an idea into the innovation of our industry, please visit our website.

E.E: What estimations do you have for 2023?

W.M: At Pro Carton, we are anticipating a year of growth for the folding carton industry. The growth is driven by increasing demand from consumers and retailers for sustainable packaging made from renewable raw materials.

We want to continue to be led by science, cementing ourselves as the leader in packaging circularity. We are driving efforts to ensure a harmonized separation and collection of recycling materials across Europe is possible. This will be crucial if we are to make big strides this year towards our goal of 90% recycling rate by 2030.

Photo credits: Metsä Board