We know that renewables are going to play a key role in helping to build a more sustainable packaging industry, and thus a more sustainable world. But how will they do this, and what are the particular challenges and opportunities for fibre-based alternatives to plastics? Victoria Hattersley reports.



While the plastics industry is finding its own ways to build circularity and deal with the huge problem of plastic waste, paper producers are working to develop their own, renewable alternatives to replace – at least in part – some of the petrochemical-based materials that currently dominate the packaging sector.

According to Cepi, the Confederation of European Paper Industries, the current value of new bio-based products represents almost 3% of the total industry value already – and that this percentage is growing rapidly to become a major contributor to the sector’s 2050 target of 50% more added value.

‘Growing opportunities’

In which sectors or applications are we seeing the biggest opportunities for renewables – specifically fibre-based alternatives – to replace plastics? The most obvious is food, in which there have already been some notable shifts towards paper. We have, for example, heard much about Pabocos ground-breaking Paper Bottle, featuring a paper outer shell with a thin plastic barrier inside, which has been trialled by companies including Carlsberg, Coca-Cola, and Absolut.

“Innovations in barrier papers started with fibre-based packaging with a plastic lining but also food service items such as plates and cutlery,” says Anna Papagrigoraki, Sustainability Director at Cepi. “But now further innovations will be replacing the plastic linings and coatings with natural polymers such as micro-fibrillated cellulose or moulded packaging.”

But while food may still be the biggest market for paper-based packaging, there are growing opportunities in other sectors in the years to come – such as industrial goods, pet food or personal care – including paperboard tubes for the primary packaging of cosmetics.

“While the food industry is important for paper, we are increasingly moving from plastics to fibre-based here,” says Aude Paustian, Head of Product Development BBC Cellpack Packaging, “For several months we have been also looking at the opportunities in the cosmetics market. In the past, cosmetics packaging was focused on a ‘premium’ look with metallic effects, but with increasing consumer interest in sustainability there has been a shift. In France, for example, there is a trend towards ‘hard’ cosmetics which the consumer can purchase in a solid form and then add water to make the cosmetic themselves. In this kind of cosmetic, paper can have a very important place.”

Opportunities and advances

And if we look at things from a non-sector-specific angle, the advances in renewable packaging technologies are coming fast and thick from many areas. We’ve already mentioned paper bottles, but we can also add to this paper-compatible renewable inks – such as Siegwerk’s UniNATURE packaging inks formulated with a high Bio Renewable Content, the very worthy Overall Winner of our 2022 Sustainability Awards.

“For flexible packaging there are certainly papers offering high barriers against water vapour under advanced conditions and oxygen barriers, without using a coating with PVDC or other undesirable substances,” says Alexander Rauer, Head of Business Development FlexTech and Product Manager Flexible Packaging Paper, Koehler Paper. “There is also a trend to reduce the weight of the base paper without compromising the performance on packaging lines. There are meanwhile a lot of companies offering heat-sealable paper but most of them only with grammages above 80 g/m². On the rigid side there are fibre moulded products for blisters or boxes with child safety functions, and many more.

“Perhaps I could add a few more to the growing list,” says Anna Papagrigoraki: “A compostable oil-based plastic free teabag, coffee pods, paper and boxes for fish but also dry moulded fibre technology. Then of course there are the non-food packaging innovations such as a paperboard tube suitable for the primary packaging of cosmetics.”

‘Limits to fibre-based packaging’

We should remember, however, that renewable does not always equal the most sustainable or practical solution. There are certainly still many limits to fibre-based packaging. Most notably, as food packaging needs to protect the packaged goods for as long as necessary in order to ensure resource efficiency, barrier properties need to be added to paper and so far these have mainly been polymer-based, which compromises recyclability. How is the industry addressing this?

“Innovation is gradually replacing this plastic layer so that paper can have its barrier properties from a natural non-chemical modified polymer while also remaining biodegradable and recyclable,” says Anna Papagrigoraki. “Another property that requires ‘help” is transparency and flexibility. However research and innovation has some examples such as Cristal™ for food packaging, so the consumer can quickly identify the product(s) they are purchasing. The uses include food packaging, non-food packaging and graphics applications such as envelope windows.”

Any liquid products or wetter foods also remain challenging to package using renewable fibre-based packaging. As Alexander Rauer says, “Liquid products or products with very high barrier requirements in packaging formats which need to resist extreme loads or severe climate conditions will be a big issue in the future of paper-based packaging.”

Another big challenge with paper packaging comes down to sealing – something which BBC Cellpack Packaging, among other companies, has been putting extensive efforts into addressing. Aude Paustian explains: “Some papers can have interesting barrier properties but are not sealable, or other way around. So what is required to address this is a close collaboration between the paper producer and the converter to achieve both of these things. We are currently involved in projects to this end.”

‘A choice between renewable or recyclable?’

So yes, there are limitations to paper that must still be overcome in order for them to gain a stronger position in the packaging sectors traditionally dominated by plastics. But another question is: does it really have to come down to a choice between renewable or recyclable; plastics or paper?

“We need both,” Aude Paustian tells us succinctly. “The advantage with paper-based packaging as opposed to plastics it that we really can have both renewable and recyclable at the same time; we can achieve both. That’s why for us the barrier sealing papers are crucial, but the recyclability of paper can also come down to varying country-specific legislations. In France we need to have 50% content to be recyclable and in other places it’s more like 85%.”

Efforts are being made to this end as we write. 4evergreen, a cross-industry alliance aiming at optimizing fibre-based packaging circularity, is accelerating the development and uptake of novel technologies to address targeted sorting or recycling challenges, specifically for barrier paper and board, with the aim of reaching an overall 90% recycling rate of fibre-based packaging by 2030.

And what about ‘recyclable renewables’, such as renewable plastics made from cellulosic materials instead of petrochemicals? In general, it can be said that we are seeing a steadily increasing interest in the area of bioplastics where, according to Anna Papagrigoraki, much of the emphasis is on replicating the effectiveness of conventional polymers but using a natural feedstock. But it’s by no means a simple substitution, which may be why bioplastics still make up a very small percentage of the overall packaging market.

“When one material replaces the other in a product, it has to be recyclable, biodegradable, fulfil its functions and also comply with the EU legislation including the Single Use Plastics Directive,” says Anna. “At the same time the information on its sourcing, production and environmental performance has to be communicated across the value chain including the consumer in a clear manner and avoiding greenwashing. This is a high order but something to keep our eyes open for future innovations. However, bioplastics will still need to be recycled in practice and if not possible anymore, composted with the appropriate infrastructure.”

Building future resilience through renewables

Fibre-based packaging is inherently sustainable in principle, but in practice there is still much more potential to unlock and, as we have seen, the industry is working to do just this. The future is renewable.

“Everything made from fossil can be made from wood,” says Anna. “We can see emerging biobased products going much further than pulp and paper that are classified as materials, chemicals, fuels, food/feed, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics and can be used either as intermediates or as final products in sectors such as automotive, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and medicals (tissue growth anyone?) but packaging will always remain a key sector.

“Perhaps in 2030 we could be looking at completely plastic-free packaging. So many technologies are being researched and modelled that surely one or two will actually make the market and reach the consumer.”