The Growing Appeal of Paper-Based Packaging

September 16,2021 Category: Packaging Development, Sustainability

Packaging waste is the one of the biggest sources of pollution, both on land and in water. The proliferation of packaging-related pollution has prompted many brands, especially those in the CPG and food & beverage industries, to invest in reusable, recyclable and compostable alternatives to traditional, plastic-based packaging.

One of the key drivers of this move away from plastics is their low recycling rates. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), only 8.7% of plastic makes it through the recycling stream, compared to 31.3% of glass, 34.9% of aluminum and, most impressively, 68.2% of paper.

Moving Away from Plastics

Knowing that plastic is the biggest culprit for packaging-related pollution, a popular transition plan has been to reduce single-use plastics to less than 5% of packaging in 2-3 years and eliminate it completely from packaging in 3-5 years. Prompted by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Global Commitment, many brands plan to have 100% recyclable packaging by 2025. More than 500 brands have signed on to this commitment, including L’Oréal, MARS, Nestlé, PepsiCo, The Coca-Cola Company, Unilever, Colgate and Walmart.

While moving away from plastics is important, it isn’t possible unless there’s a replacement packaging material to move towards, and for many brands, easily recycled paper is the solution.

Paper-Based Alternatives

Paper packaging such as corrugated boxes, paperboard cartons, and paper bags and sacks are nothing new, but recent advancements have made post-consumer recycled paper and barrier-coated paper viable options for many types of products. Recycled kraft paper bags are now an affordable, viable alternative to bags previously made from primarily virgin fiber. Polyethylene (PE)-coated papers feature excellent moisture and grease barrier protection. They can be printed on and can be used for hot products, which makes them a better option for food service brands than waxed papers, and like waxed papers, they can be recycled in many situations.

There are also a growing number of options for barrier-coated papers that don’t use PE, making them recyclable in all traditional recycling systems. Many of these non-PE barrier coatings are also compostable, making them a viable solution for an even broader range of sustainable packaging initiatives.

For products that don’t require packaging with moisture barrier properties, paper materials without barrier coatings are also a great alternative to plastics. Suppliers such as Paptic produce versatile paper bags made from renewable materials that are recyclable and durable enough for reusable packaging applications. Sylvicta, by UK-based supplier Arjowiggins, produces translucent paper with strong oxygen barrier properties, making it an excellent option for packaged food products. Their unique material is fully compostable and recyclable.

Brands Investing in Paper-Based Innovation

The popularity of paper-based materials as an alternative to plastics is evident in a number of brands who have made recent headlines with news about their efforts. Chobani recently announced they’re launching paper cups to replace the plastic cups they used to hold their oat-based yogurt products. This switch means yogurt joins their oat milk, cold-brew coffee and coffee creamers in using recyclable paper packaging. 

In the beverage space, Absolut launched a paper-based bottle prototype for trial in Europe. Their bottle, made from 57% paper and 43% recycled plastic, is a step toward their ultimate goal of producing a bottle made from 100% bio-based materials. Coca-Cola Europe is working with Danish start-up Paboco to develop their own paper bottle, while beer brand Carlsberg works to develop its own 100% bio-based bottle made from sustainably sourced wood fiber, both of which would be huge developments for the bottled beverage industry.

Cosmetics giant L’Oréal is also working with Paboco to create a sustainable paper bottle, demonstrating paper packaging’s viability beyond the food & beverage sector in the CPG space. Pulpex, a sustainable packaging technology company established by Diageo in partnership with PepsiCo, Unilever and GSK’s consumer division, is working with Stora Enso to produce bottles made from wood fiber pulp and a thin barrier coating. This bottle would be a viable option for brands in a variety of industries.

Evaluating Your Options for Paper Packaging

While there are sure to be many innovations in paper-based packaging in the coming years, there are a wide variety of options that are available for brands to incorporate into their packaging portfolio right now. If reducing or eliminating plastics is a part of your brand’s sustainability goals, working with a supplier-agnostic partner to evaluate paper packaging options can help you reach those goals more quickly.

Adept Group has experts in more than 60 specialized packaging disciplines, including sustainability and materials science. Whether you’re evaluating paper-based packaging to learn if it works for your brand or you’re ready to start looking at specific options to advance your sustainability initiatives, get in touch. We’re ready to help.