Can paper be the new plastic?
With the world’s eyes focus on the devastating impact that plastic has on our oceans, paper is once more reasserting itself as a valid packaging medium.
The recent UK BBC TV series Blue Planet revealed shocking images of the damage plastic is doing to the world’s oceans. Together with China’s decision to no longer accept waste imports, attitudes are moving away from the acceptance of plastic as a suitable packaging material.
Although paper has the obvious benefits over plastic of a lower carbon impact and improved recyclability, there are trade-offs to be made when switching from plastic packaging.
Industry needs to come up with solutions both in terms of weight, coatings and end-of-life processes if paper is to become the first choice for packaging.
A heavyweight problem
Renewable packaging company Stora Enso is working to solve the problem of paper packaging’s increased weight through the development of a micro-fibrillated cellulose (MFC).
The innovative production technique produces a lighter-weight paperboard – maximising yields to produce more packaging material per ton of board.
Despite the improved yield and reduced weight, important packaging properties including strength and stiffness are not compromised. Stora Enso’s sales manager, Craig Pearson, reiterates the firm’s belief that “anything currently made from fossil-based materials will soon be made from tree.”
Maintaining performance qualities is the other key stumbling block to swapping plastic packaging for paper. Here, again, innovative companies are leading the way.
For example, Akzo Nobel is working on a coating composition made from existing plastic waste that will still enable the paper packaging to which it is applied to be recycled alongside other paper waste.
Meanwhile, Metsä Board is launching an entirely bio-based eco-barrier paperboard that delivers grease resistance and improved printing performance that is fully recyclable and biodegradable.
However, commentators have made the point that unless the waste sector is prepared to handle these new technologies this innovation may be in vain. Cumbria-based fiber-recovery plant James Cropper can recycle up to 500 million coated cups per year, but since September 2017 has processed only 10 million.
James Cropper is one of only three such facilities in the UK, and the fact that so many current recycling facilities aren’t able to process plastic-coated papers may mean that they inadvertently end up turning away the new bio-based coatings in error.
Education and attitude change are going to be a large part of the picture throughout the supply chain – from sourcing to recycling – if paper is successfully going to replace plastic as our favorite packaging material.