Navigating the ‘jungle of sustainability’ - Part 3: Erik Bunge, CEO of Smurfit Kappa Benelux

Manufacturers, packaging companies, retailers, governments and consumers... we all struggle to meet the challenges of sustainability. Things need to improve – that much is clear. But how? We set out to find answers in the ‘jungle of sustainability’. In the third part of this series we talk to Erik Bunge, CEO of Smurfit Kappa Benelux, which is part of one of the world's largest and leading paper and cardboard producers. Above all, Erik advocates an innovative approach to the issue of waste, whether it concerns paper, plastic or any other aspect.


First we’ll take a brief look back at the previous two blogs in this series. We kicked off with Chris Bruijnes, director of the Kennisinstituut Duurzaam Verpakken (Research Institute for Sustainable Packaging). He introduced us to the Five Perspective Model and the battle of the materials. In the second blog, Mark van der Burgt, Chief Commercial Officer of Vetipak, introduced another intriguing term: jungle of sustainability.


When we ask Erik which of the terms he relates to the most, he is immediately clear about the first one. ‘A battle? Yes it sure is! However, we have to ensure it doesn’t become a battle against each other. “Paper versus plastic” is too simple a way of describing the situation. Paper is a fantastic material, but so is plastic. Each has its own qualities and its own role in the packaging world. Above all, it's about fighting a common battle against waste and environmental pollution.’


‘We must ensure that it doesn’t become

a battle against each other

Erik Bunge, CEO Smurfit Kappa Benelux


Things are moving fast

And the term ‘jungle’? ‘Yes, that was a good choice,’ says the CEO. ‘In a way it's a positive term, because it indicates that a lot is happening. Over the past five years or so, sustainability has become an integrated part of profitable business operations at most major packaging producers. And things have been moving fast ever since. However, I understand that it's not always easy to keep up.’


Erik believes that there is an clear task for the chain, especially for companies like Smurfit Kappa. ‘Given our market leadership position, I feel a strong responsibility to “take the chain with us” on this journey. It is important that we’re clear about what we’re doing, which steps we are taking and where we ultimately want to go. That's why initiatives like this blog series are so important.’


Better Planet Packaging

Smurfit Kappa has a clear goal in mind: Better Planet Packaging. With this in mind, the company is striving towards a more sustainable world, among other things by making packaging more sustainable and by looking at what can be further optimized together with partners in the chain. The key words are innovation, chain cooperation and the replacement of non-renewable materials by more sustainable alternatives.


‘We want to be on

the right side of the future,

that's why we’re investing heavily

in innovative paper applications.”

‘We want to be on the right side of the future,’ says Eric. ‘That's why we’re investing heavily in innovative paper applications. These must be more sustainable in terms of raw material use, equipment and/or processes than current paper applications, and also more sustainable than various plastic applications. For example, I think we all agree that we should limit the use of EPS (expanded polystyrene) as much as possible.’


And what’s the biggest challenge on the 'paper side'? ‘We must continue to increase renewability and recyclability. The myth that we are destroying forests is hopefully far behind us now, but we must continue to take steps towards becoming fully circular in as many products and applications as possible.’


During the remainder of our conversation, we review numerous sustainable innovations by Smurfit Kappa, both in the packaging world and far beyond. We describe three of them below to illustrate the developments.


From shrink film to paper

‘Together with a Belgian brewer, we have developed a sustainable packaging concept to replace shrink film, which is typically a single-use plastic packaging product. This new packaging is made entirely of paper, including the handle. This makes it easy for consumers to recycle the packaging. After all, it's not just about the packaging, but also about how it can be recycled.’


‘Paper is not a product that makes the world news, but we’re making incredible leaps forward’


From EPS to paper

‘We developed the ThermoBox for keeping frozen food products at the right temperature. It’s based entirely on paper and is a combination of Hexacomb® (honeycomb cardboard) and corrugated cardboard. This packaging is fully recyclable and an excellent replacement for the commonly used EPS box. In addition, the new packaging is flexible and can be stored flat, reducing warehouse space requirements.’



From wood to paper

‘Another application for the Hexacomb® material is our TOPPsafe™ solution, an alternative to the wood, chipboard and plastic panels used to protect palletized products during transport and storage. This solution is made entirely of paper and is therefore free of splinters, much lighter, easier to handle and easier to store. Naturally, the new boards comply with strict hygiene regulations, making them suitable for a wide range of applications.’


So there are innovations from various angles, but with one thing in common: they have been developed in collaboration with the market. Erik concludes the interview with an appeal: ‘Of course, paper is not a product that makes the world news, but we’re making incredible leaps forward. We can only do this by constantly innovating and working closely together with our customers and other partners in the chain. I cordially invite them to challenge us. After all, this is a battle we can only win together.’


Want to know more about paper and sustainable packaging? Then listen to Erik's podcast at Duurzaam Bedrijfsleven (Sustainable Business) 



This blog is part of our Navigating the ‘jungle of sustainability’-series. Please read the other blogs:


Part 1 with Chris Bruijnes, managing director of the Kennisinstituut Duurzaam Verpakken (Research Institute for Sustainable Packaging)

Part 2 with Mark van der Burgt, CCO of Vetipak

Part 3 with Erik Bunge, CEO of Smurfit Kappa Benelux