EU SUPD enters into force: Fiber-based suppliers eye lucrative opportunity despite scale-up challenges
05 Jul 2021 --- The hotly debated EU Single-Use Plastics Directive (SUPD), first announced in 2019, has come into force. Since Saturday (July 3), single-use plastic cotton bud sticks, cutlery, plates, straws, stirrers, balloon sticks and EPS drinks and food containers cannot be sold within the EU.
These disposable items were identified as the most polluting single-use items found on European beaches.
While many environmental activists are celebrating the new regulations, industry now faces a range of practical and legislative hurdles, presenting lucrative opportunities in many sectors, while also raising fresh concerns around the impacts and implications of plastic-replacement materials.
Fiber-based alternatives are coming to the fore in this industry shift. Innova Market Insights recently pegged “Fiber-based Frenzy” as a top trend for 2021, noting pulp and paperboard-based solutions as some of the most popular plastic waste escape routes.
PackagingInsights discusses the role of fiber-based alternatives in single-use packaging with experts from PulPac and Zume, two companies focused on developing cost-effective fiber-based alternatives to disposable plastic packaging and items.
Fiber to the fore
Linus Larsson, CEO and founder of Swedish dry molded fiber specialist PulPac, says industry has little option other than to turn to fiber-based products in the wake of the SUPD. This is especially true for those wishing to adopt genuinely environmentally sustainable materials, he claims.
“There are not many other material alternatives that can offer the sustainable attributes on a significant enough scale to replace plastics, besides natural cellulose fibers.”
If single-use items like those now outlawed by the SUPD are to remain in existence in any form, turning to fiber-based solutions is the answer, he continues.
“Either we completely ban critical product categories and shift consumer behaviors, or we replace the troublesome fossil material with fiber, which can be recycled and, if misplaced, degrade.”
This year, a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) conducted by Ramboll and released by the European Paper Packaging Association (EPPA) found paper-based single-use products are more environmentally responsible than reusable tableware in European quick-service restaurants. This is primarily driven by carbon emissions savings, the LCA found.
Besides emphasizing the need to switch to fiber-based alternatives if industry is to continue producing single-use items, Larsson notes the SUPD has opened a lucrative vacuum for industry players ready to capitalize.
“Of course, this is a profitable opportunity. It will be lucrative for all who embrace the change to environmental sustainability. The biggest risk for the industry and PulPac is if the conversion takes too long,” he stresses.
The central challenge, he says, is building production mechanisms cost-competitive with virgin plastics.
“We need to start scaling capacity now and leverage systems such as dry molding, which is highly cost-effective. Competitiveness in cost is the key to enable a holistic transition, and it is the only path that will ensure global impact with decreased emissions, lower water usage and an environment free-from plastics.”
Recently, PulPac unveiled the “world’s first” Dry Molded Fiber standardized production unit – PulPac PU300 – that can produce 99 percent material efficiency and 90 percent lower CO2 emissions than plastic at a similar unit cost, the company says.
The first demonstration line is located in PulPac’s Tech Center in Sweden, where industrial manufacturing of cellulose fiber spoons has begun.
The scale-up challenge
Vaibhav Goel, managing director of Zume for the APAC and EMEA regions, also comments on the importance of developing manufacturing techniques that can capture the opportunity created by the SUPD. Zume recently announced new partnerships with major distributors spanning 20 EU countries.
“Our production methods have driven down the cost of molded fiber by designing a new flexible manufacturing cell technique capable of producing unique shapes with significantly higher yields and faster cycle times than traditional manufacturing methods.”
Despite this “breakthrough” technology, he emphasizes two central challenges (besides cost-competitiveness) the segment now faces: speed to market and performance.
Goel claims Zume has developed hardware and software technology that can bring new designs from concept to prototype in less than a week, compared to four to six weeks with standard manufacturers.
“Nearly every brand in the world has a plastic reduction commitment, but change has been slow due to a lack of competitively priced alternative solutions available at scale,” he says.
Besides production speeds, one of the biggest challenges industry now faces is creating plastic-alternative solutions, like fiber-based packaging, matching the performance, functionality and versatility of plastics, continues Larsson.
“Paper and cellulose materials don’t behave in the same way that plastics do, and this is something we need to grasp quickly – to design for purpose. To really scale and make good on the opportunity, we all must embrace this and get to work, to develop the truly green alternatives for the more complex application.”
One area of recent development is in beverage bottles, with many companies developing paper-based solutions. Recently, Unilever announced it would be launching the “world’s first” paper bottle for laundry detergent, developed with the Pulpex consortium – an industry collaboration exploring paper bottling designs.
Matching strength and water repellent qualities in fiber-based bottles is a typical area of innovation through which designers are racing to create answers that can compete with plastic materials such as PET. Reaching a similar performance level while maintaining the recyclability advantages of paper is now the main target for producers like PulPac, says Larsson.
“So much R&D is going into new chemistry to make more products possible. We are certain that fibers with the right production process will be the future for commodity products and high-value solutions,” he says.
Boosting recycling rates for fiber-based packaging depends largely on barrier coating technologies. Barriers make paper impermeable and therefore able to replace plastic in numerous applications.
“One key action is to agree on better standards; there will be many advancements in fiber barrier technologies, and to quickly understand how they will work in current and future recycling streams is key,” Larsson explains.
Numerous plastic-free barrier coating technologies have hit the market recently. Notably, Huber Group Print Solutions debuted the HYDRO-X GA Water Barrier Coating, which eradicates the need for polyethylene film lamination barriers using a revised water-based coating binding agents formulation.
Meanwhile, UK-based Reelbrands discussed dispersion coating technology with PackagingInsights, highlighting some of the misconceptions surrounding it.
Stay tuned this week for more SUPD coverage, as PackagingInsights also discusses the single-use packaging evolution with the plastics industry and NGOs.
Today, European Plastics Converters warned the SUPD legislative processes are creating “an unprecedented fragmentation among EU Member States.”
By Louis Gore-Langton
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