Paper-based packaging: Environmental benefits and “natural” aesthetics drive growth

Paper-based packaging: Environmental benefits and “natural” aesthetics drive growth

26 Oct 2018 --- Paper and paperboard have witnessed somewhat of a resurgence, fueled by anti-plastic sentiment and a growing global demand for designed-in recyclability. Not only is paper a naturally renewable, recyclable and compostable material, it can also add value to packaging with the appearance of “naturalness” in an increasingly eco-conscious consumer market. In terms of shelf-appeal, paper also provides an excellent printing substrate with potential for high-quality graphics to effectively communicate brand values (and sustainability credentials).

Sustainability expert and Director of Emagine Packaging, Richard Coles, explains to PackagingInsights that the industry evolution towards a cellulose-based bio-circular economy which we are now witnessing in the form of frequent paper-based packaging launches can be traced back to the early 1990s, when the emerging circular economy paradigm and marine plastics pollution issue came to the fore.

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Iceland supermarket eradicates plastic with a simple paper band

“As a natural, annually renewable resource supporting valuable eco-services such as carbon/water cycling and biodiversity, paper and paperboard offer distinct environmental sustainability credentials,” Coles says.

“The raw material (wood) can be sourced from sustainably managed forests and biomass/renewable energy may be used to power modern mills. In particular, paper and paperboard are both readily recyclable and compostable and so, by definition, biodegradable.”

Growth fueled by anti-plastic sentiment
Packaging suppliers are increasingly turning to paper and paperboard as an eco-conscious alternative to plastics. In some cases, such as UK supermarket Iceland removing all plastic packaging from its bananas in September and replacing it with a recycled paper band, paper enables a complete eradication of a material which has – rightly or wrongly – come to embody environmental scourge in the eyes of the consumer.

In other cases, such as the recent UK launch of the JUST water brand, a product packaged in 54 percent paper, 28 percent plant-based plastic, 3 percent aluminum and 15 percent protective plastic film (and a sugarcane cap), paper is employed to reduce the total plastic percentage thereby increasing the overall renewability of the pack.

Likewise, Sonoco recently announced that it is supplying 90 percent paper rigid containers for German brand mymuesli. Unlike the previous provider, Sonoco’s containers feature a carton-based bottom to help facilitate the recycling process, while only the easily separable lid remains plastic.

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JUST Water carton bottle produced by Tetra Pak:
54 percent paper with a sugarcane cap

“The market is changing in terms of recyclability. As an example, if you look at the mymuesli can, we are now using a paper bottom which means the whole can may go straight into the recycling stream,” Sean Cairns, Vice President and General Manager for Sonoco, tells PackagingInsights.

“Beyond sustainability, we are targeting ease-of-use and also a ‘natural look.’ The finish on the mymuesli packaging looks like a ‘natural’ finish and we are really trying to emphasize the natural contents of the product inside,” he adds.

“Nature's” appeal
A recent Sonoco global study highlighted that consumers are more likely to buy organic, premium brands if the packaging is “natural-looking.” Paper packaging is strongly positioned in this regard, creating a look and feel which consciously (or subconsciously) relates with trees and forests in the mind of the busy shopper.

“Packaging solutions which combine convenience and aesthetic ‘natural’ appeal, together with (perceived) minimal or reduced ecological impact, are increasingly valued by consumers and represent an important future trend,” Coles notes. “In addition, paper and paperboard-based packaging with ease of tear-open or pull-open features may offer more convenient solutions.”

Representative of this trend, Elopak has made a significant sustainability gain with the launch of the aseptic Pure-Pak carton made with Natural Brown Board. The aseptic Pure-Pak cartons have one less layer and thereby retain the natural brown color of the wood fibers which gives a visible fiber structure. This also results in reduced carbon footprint and reduced weight, providing a naturally different, sustainable and authentic package that meets demands from growing trends in ethical, ecological and organic products.”

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Mondi's paper-based,
plastic-alternative, dog food bag

Within the pet food category, Mondi has substituted plastic for paper for its FlexziBox concept bag. The paper bag boasts a “natural look and feel” while maintaining the lightness, barrier properties and decorative qualities of the plastic bags.

However, as Coles explains, “While sustainably designed bio-based packaging can help differentiate brands and enhance brand value, these materials often require treatments such as coatings and laminations to enhance their barrier properties e.g. to gases, moisture, oils and fats thereby extending their packaging applications and the shelf-life of the products they contain.”

Stealing bioplastics’ limelight
The growing perception of paper as the natural successor to plastics in a more sustainable future is a point of contention for bioplastics advocates. Hasso von Pogrell, Managing Director of European Bioplastics (EUBP) tells PackagingInsights: “The European Commission seems to be thinking about paper and cardboard as a sustainable solution, but I am not sure that this has been thought through.”

“Many paper and cardboard packs are prone to contain potentially dangerous legacy elements from former recycling. Therefore, and for reasons of barrier properties, in many cases they need a layer of plastic, and that, of course, creates biodegradability issues. However, a bioplastic coating on a paper package is a good solution because it can create a 100 percent biodegradable package,” he says.

Why do bioplastics remain relatively scarce (although on the rise) in comparison to paper-based packaging? Coles says that there are a number of factors at play, including economics, used packaging recovery infrastructures and consumer perception of bioplastics.

“I think consumers are still largely unfamiliar with what bioplastics are, their benefits and they are often confused as to what packaging is recyclable anyway, particularly in the case of plastics. Bioplastics add yet another layer of complexity. In particular, there may be inadequate provision of recycling and other end-of-use infrastructures (such as composting and anaerobic digestion for biodegradable materials) for bioplastics.”

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Sonoco's paper-based (and bottomed) mymuesli containers

“Also, the economics of bioplastics and paper-based packaging systems are usually significantly higher than conventional petroleum-based plastics packaging systems. However, bioplastics (both biodegradable and non-biodegradable types) are increasingly being used in combination with paper and paperboard – as exemplified by Tetra Pak’s ‘world first’ 100 percent biobased beverage carton and an increasing range of compostable/ biodegradable paper-based foodservice packaging,” Coles adds.

A recent paper-based packaging solution that Coles is particularly excited by is UK-based Rap’s ‘Precious Planet FoodService’ sandwich packaging that is 100 percent compostable and produced entirely from plant waste such as the leaves and stems left behind from harvest.

“It is claimed that the board used can be recycled up to seven times to deliver a closed loop solution diverting waste from landfill and our oceans. The wood fibers and the cellulose lining is certified to both the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) standards,” says Coles.

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Elopak aseptic Pure-Pak cartons
made with Natural Brown Board

Paper-based packaging appears well positioned for a continued upward trend in a global market driven by a sustainability agenda. Paper provides environmental benefits in terms of renewability, recyclability and compostability but, perhaps more significantly in terms of generating long-term commercial viability, it gives the appearance of sustainability in its “natural” look and feel considerably more than material alternatives such as plastics.

PackagingInsights recently visited the headquarters of Tetra Pak, the leaders in the carton beverage packaging category. The Vice President of Carton at the company detailed some of the key themes driving carton design, as well as the Vice President of Sustainability noting how Tetra Pak is ambitious to have a 100 percent renewable material portfolio in the near future.

By Joshua Poole

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