With healthy eating firmly on the menu and customers more quality-conscious than ever, fruit and vegetables need to arrive in perfect condition, often after travelling thousands of miles. Robert Vænerberg, vice-president of sales and marketing at Powerflute, explains how the firm's semi-chemical fluting paper provides the strength that reliable corrugated packaging requires.
As consumers go about their weekly grocery shop, selecting the most aesthetic vegetables, they will rarely have a thought for the paper used in the boxes in which the produce arrived. Growers and distributors, meanwhile, are all too aware that such considerations can mean the difference between success and failure. Robert Vænerberg, vice-president of sales and marketing at Powerflute, explains why the stakes are so high.
"We all know that if customers see a product that looks slightly damaged, they will reach for the one behind it," he says. "We rarely buy things that don't look pristine. Millions of tons of fruit and vegetables are sent around the world, if boxes fail, the damage to the product inside and to your business, not to mention the whole ecological system in terms of the amount of food thrown away, is immense."
From its Savon Sellu mill in Kuopio, Finland, Powerflute produces its eponymous semi-chemical fluting paper. Made wholly from birch - which is in plentiful supply in the country and is known for its stiff fibre - Powerflute is one of three Nordic 'semi-chems' produced worldwide. Over half of its business is in Europe, but it also supplies to corrugators in Asia, Africa, Latin America, North America and the Middle East.
The pulp in the so-named 'semi-chemical' process is cooked for only 15-30 minutes so as to maintain the wood's natural compounds, such as lignin and hemicellulose. These natural components mean no other additives need to be used.
The pure raw material and lack of additives mean the product meets all food packaging standards, but the main advantage of the production process is the paper's ability to withstand humid conditions; while paper is hydroscopic, the hemicellulose within semi-chemical paper protects the fibre from the effects of humidity.
"In the a case of a box of food that's being transported for several weeks in a container, you will quite often have 90-95% relative humidity in the air, and that is gradually assumed by the paper inside the box," Vænerberg says.
"If you think about a high stack of fruit trays, if the bottom tray collapses, the whole shipment can be destroyed. Equally, if the bottom of the tray bulges downward from the weight of the fruit, it will press on the top fruit in the box below, which may render those unsellable. So the strength of the box and of the bottom panel is very important. Semi-chem allows boxes to maintain their structure for much longer periods of time."
Alongside its world-class strength, Powerflute also has a high price tag, as Vænerberg is the first to admit. Its use must therefore be justified.
Most of the mill's output goes into boxes for transporting fruit and vegetables, while the remaining 10-15% is used for more traditionally high-value electronic and manufactured goods. For sturdier products, shorter distances and more lenient conditions, recycled paper is often adequate - which is why Vænerberg sees the industry's two tiers as entirely interdependent.
"We, the virgin fibres industry, would never be able to provide for the world's needs for corrugated boxes without the recycled paper industry, and the latter would be unable to make its paper if we weren't adding new fibre into the chain all the time. So it's a complete symbiosis," he says.
"The recycled paper industry, in many ways, gives virgin fibre its green credentials. Our papers are being recycled at an extremely high rate, and the paper industry is one of the best recyclers of any industry in the world."
The ecological responsibility that does come with virgin paper, Vænerberg emphasises, is ensuring that forestry practices are sustainable. In that regard, Savon Sellu's location is its greatest asset. Finland's natural wealth in trees and water, and its longstanding environmental policy, give weight to Vænerberg's argument that paper milling is an agricultural enterprise like any other.
"Finland as a country has been a leader," he says. "We have had sustainability enshrined in our legislation since the late 19th century. Way before people started worrying about sustainability, Finnish legislation specified that if you cut down a tree, you had to plant four new ones."
It's an ethos at the heart of Savon Sellu's practices: Powerflute uses only PEFC-certified wood, procurement of which is certified by the FSC Chain of Custody. This ensures that its product is made only from wood harvested from sustainably maintained resources.