With brands like Nutella and Ferrero Rocher, the Italian confectioner Ferrero has made a name for itself all over the world. Its hazelnut sandwich spread and nut-filled chocolates have become so popular that Ferrero now buys and uses a fourth of the world’s overall supply of hazelnuts, a total of 23000 tons a year. Business is going well, if it wasn’t for one problem: What to do with all the nutshells and skins of cacao beans? So far, they have been incinerated, a wasteful practice. There has to be a better way, thought Ferrero’s management team in 2010. They put out a call for proposals to help them eliminate waste and create a useful solution for the byproducts of their chocolates and spreads.

The Papiertechnische Stiftung (PTS), an organization based in Munich, Germany, dedicated to research and development of new and ecofriendly paper and paperboard products, won the bid for the project based on their proposal for packaging material made of nutshells. The project is also supported by the EU under the eco-innovation initiative. The goal was not only to find a way to reduce waste but also to produce paperboard that passes the regulatory requirements for use for food products and reduces the dependence on virgin fiber.

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After a viability study to assess the merits of the projects, PTS partnered with paper producer Stora Enso to further explore how the nutshells could be used in actual paperboard production. The results were promising: “The mid-layer made in part of nutshells had a greater volume that conventional pulp and thus increased the bending stiffness of the paperboard”, said Wolfram Dietz, senior scientist and project manager at PTS. The resulting packaging material is not only eco-friendly but can also result in cost savings due to its lower weight and better product characteristics.

While the outer layers are made of high quality paper to ensure that they are stable and that printed images and logos don’t fade, the mid-layer is typically made of secondary fibers and wood pulp. PTS and Stora Enso have managed to replace 10 to 20 % of the furnish for the mid-layer with nutshells. The project partners now are testing downstream processability and quality of the new board products. “The fact that we could use a new raw material in the normal board production process was a real breakthrough”, says Dietz who also works on using straw and other bio-based material in paper production.

The project ends next months and the project partners will decide on further steps. For Dietz, the most appealing part of the process was helping to use a waste product in a way that is in line with the ideas of a circular economy where products are reused and recycled and resources are used in a responsible manner.

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