"Wood is doubly circular: renewable and reusable"

Helena Sjögren and Kai-Yee Thim from the Swedish Forest Industries explain how the EU's new Action Plan on the Circular Economy can help deliver climate neutrality and increase, not reduce, the circularity of forest products.

Q: How will this plan help the EU meet its climate targets?

Helena Sjögren, Environmental Director: It will make a substantial contribution because it focuses on production processes and consumption. If you want to lower the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, you have to keep as much carbon as possible locked up in the biosphere. In practice this means increasing growth of the forest and the use, reuse and recycling of carbon-packed materials such as wood and paper packaging.

We therefore welcome the plan's explicit support to the sustainable and circular bio-based sector.

Kai-Yee Thim, Director of Products and Product Safety: Sustainable production is a hallmark of the Swedish forest-based industries. We contribute already through sustainable forest management and industrial symbiosis. This means that every fibre harvested creates the greatest possible value in the wood supply chain.

Helena: Wood is circular in two ways: once as a renewable material which absorb atmospheric carbon and second as a reusable, recyclable material which delays emissions to the atmosphere. It can be used again and again in many high value applications - up to seven times, on average - until the fibres are too short and they are turned into bioenergy.

Q: Is there anything in the new Action Plan that worries you?

Kai-Yee: Our main concern is that the plan proposes to introduce requirements for recycled content in products, in order to create a market for secondary raw materials. This makes sense for some materials such as plastics, but it would be contra productive for our industry since we already have a well-established market for recycled forest fibres.

If you make recycled content mandatory, this could actually risk reducing circularity in our existing value chain. This is because both producers of fresh and recycled fiber-based products are co-existing in symbiosis in the same circular system. If a mandatory recycled content would be implied on all products, the fresh fiber-based products would be disqualified. Furthermore, the circularity would actually "dry up" as the inflow of fresh fiber-based products is essential to assure the continuous sourcing of recycled fibers. Moreover, a mandatory recycled content would mean that recycled fibers would have to be transported across Europe to a much larger extent than today, where the fibers are mainly used locally. This would of course be in contradiction to climate change mitigation efforts

Helena: Our sector is a natural part of the circular economy. But some parts of the plan, paradoxically, could make our industry less circular. It mentions for example that the Industrial Emissions Directive will be revised to promote circularity in industrial processes. We should be careful, however. Circularity needs to be considered holistically across industrial value chains, which are highly complex and can cut across sectors.

The same is true for industrial symbiosis: yes, it should be increased in Europe, but the EU should look at how we do it successfully today instead of imposing new, overly prescriptive rules to promote it.

Kai-Yee: There is an essential correlation between packaging and food waste. The aim of reducing overpackaging is positive, as long as all aspects of the packaging's functions are included in the evaluation. Packaging aims to protect food and can enhance its traceability. You may have more food losses if you reduce packaging wrongly.

Q: How will the Action Plan take circularity to the next level?

Kai-Yee: It stresses that product design should enhance sustainability and recyclability, which we already contribute to by offering our fiber-based products. The next level is that the Commission proposes to make this mandatory by a Sustainable Product Policy Initiative.

Textiles, one of the priority key product value chains targeted in the plan, is a good example where our industry can contribute. Something that may not be well-known yet is that at least two Swedish companies have started to supply the textile industry with recycled textile fibers mixed with wood fibres. It's a fantastic breakthrough!

In addition, another priority key product value chain is construction and buildings. We strongly welcome the strategy for a Sustainable Built Environment which the Commission will launch in 2021, as our industry can contribute with a resource-efficient material with a minimum of waste.

Finally, the plan focuses not only on products but also on consumers: it empowers them by making more product information available. Demand for sustainable products is paramount if you want to change the way people consume.