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Sustainability: practice makes it possible

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Professor Klaus Töpfer on challenges and opportunities for Germany’s corrugated board industry  

Mondi asked Klaus Töpfer to share his thoughts on the topic of sustainability in practice as well as the related challenges and opportunities for Germany’s corrugated board industry. Klaus is a key figure in the field of circular economy. Over the course of his career, he has evolved from a nationally recognised German environmental politician into an internationally respected sustainability advocate who tirelessly motivates the international community to engage in sustainable action.

One of the stops on his career path was the office of German Federal Minister for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety from 1987 until 1994, when he rolled out the world’s first mandatory recycling system. From 1998 to 2006, he held the position of Executive Director of the United Nations Environmental Programme in Nairobi. The scientist and former politician was conferred the German Sustainability Award – one of many awards that he has received – for his life’s work and unparalleled commitment. Read here about his contribution to advancing the circular economy.

Sustainability means paying the costs of your prosperity yourself – now! 

The climate crisis, pollution, the destruction of ecosystems and the related loss of biodiversity, as well as the growing shortage of finite resources, all show the limits of linear economic activity and call for a fundamental transformation. There is where the concept of a circular economy comes in, whose implementation Klaus believes is without alternative if we are to remain within the planetary boundaries.

The needs of society must be met in future through streamlined, efficient use of resources. This will lead to fewer resources and materials being used and to these being circulated, while greenhouse gases, pollution and waste will be reduced. A circular economy helps to combat climate change and tackle the loss of biological diversity and other environmental challenges, satisfying the needs of society. It allows employment, quality of living and prosperity to be increased and environmental, social and economic systems to be made sustainable and more resilient.

This guiding principle aims to safeguard natural resources and livelihoods for current and future generations. According to Klaus, this change in the growth narrative requires a concerted effort: “We must act responsibly, choose sustainable ways of life and think about the consequences. Sustainability means paying the costs of your prosperity yourself – now!”

Circular solutions to meet the requirements of the market 

As packaging from a renewable resource, corrugated paper has considerable circular potential and is sustainable by its very nature. Nevertheless, Klaus would like packaging manufacturers to think about one question in particular: “What is the most desirable end-of-life scenario for my goods?” The focus on the entire life cycle requires the time when goods and packaging have reached the end of their service phase and have to be returned to a cycle to be considered as early as during the planning, designing and production stage. In a circular economy, products are ideally designed to have the longest possible lifetime, as well as to be reused and recycled.

Manufacturers of containerboard, corrugated board and cardboard should also not ignore current trends such as the booming online trade, the renaissance of regional products and the issue of non-packaging because these trends require changes in the behaviour patterns of end consumers. According to Klaus, people are increasingly questioning what is produced and under what conditions.

Since packaging is perceived as part of a holistic brand and product experience, consumers and therefore retailers and manufacturers are increasingly paying greater attention to the functional aspects of packaging. However, the environmental expert sees packaging as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself: it protects products from damage, premature spoilage and pathogens, and often makes them fit for transport in the first place. Through intelligent use of resources, new technologies and changed behaviour patterns, Klaus sees opportunities for the positive further development of the circular economy.

Responsibility as an opportunity

Klaus raises an interesting point when he talks about the knowledge-based value chain. By this, the scientist means that ideas and knowledge are frequently even more valuable than fossil raw materials. He uses the example of solar energy, which was ridiculed on market launch because of its high cost. Thanks to synergies and cross-border collaboration, it has developed into a profitable business today.

Knowledge is symbolic capital. And thinking ahead is essential for sustainable businesses. Innovative entrepreneurs see opportunities and use them to create new products and business models. Klaus’ call to action is directed to all of us:

“Let us ask ourselves again and again whether what we are doing is aligned with the needs of the future. Am I enjoying something here at the expense of the next generation? If so, I need to change it.”

100% of Mondi’s packaging and paper products reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025

The Mondi Action Plan 2030 (MAP2030) is Mondi’s sustainability framework that defines the actions, targets and milestones we need to achieve to meet our ambitious sustainability commitments by 2030. This includes the goal of making 100% of our packaging and paper products reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. The MAP2030 consists of three main action areas: circular-driven solutions, empowered people and action on climate. All areas are aligned with the UN Sustainable Development Goals and build on our past performance and experiences. MAP2030 unites our around 26,500 colleagues with the common goal of contributing to a better world by developing innovative, sustainable packaging and paper solutions.

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