Noel Morrin, Executive Vice President Sustainability at Stora Enso, makes a bold statement: Anything made from fossil-fuel today can be made from a tree tomorrow. In this comment piece, he makes the case for the far-reaching potential of paper-based packaging.
That means a future where there are sustainable alternatives to plastics, created from the fibres from the forest. It may sound outlandish but why shouldn’t it be true? Wood fibres can already today be broken down into tiny microfibrils, separating the components of the wood. With the right chemistry, biomaterials made from these could replicate the strength and flexibility of plastics using renewable, recyclable and re-growable wood-fibres.
Already today there are a host of renewable packaging materials that can replace plastic applications. For example, Iceland Foods recently launched a new ready-meal range using Stora Enso’s paperboard trays instead of black plastic – which has notoriously poor recycling rates. Eco-friendly packaging for fresh fish is another recent innovation designed to phase out plastics and polystyrene foam boxes. There is a conceivable future where all plastic packaging is replaced in a similar way, including oil-based PET bottles and food packaging littering our oceans.
However, we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Plastics have certain qualities that cannot yet be matched by more environmentally-friendly materials. Because replacing plastics needs to be as much about functionality and cost-efficiency as sustainability. People pick paper instead of plastic bags in the supermarket partly because it’s better for the planet, but they’re also able to get their groceries home safe and sound. When a wood fibre-based product matches the qualities and pricing of a plastic alternative, it will eventually win that battle.
Hence, whether to use plastics or not is not really a ‘yes or no’ question, but rather boils down to the alternatives available now and in the future. Basically, if you care about the planet and there are sustainable and viable alternatives at hand, plastics are an undesirable option. But there are hybrid solutions available as well. One example of this is the growing market for biocomposites – materials that blend renewable wood-fibre with non-renewable materials, such as plastics, to create a new one that offers properties of both. Today the mix is around 50/50 by weight but the goal is to, bit by bit, phase out the fossil-based content while not compromising on the material qualities.
There will of course be a cost associated with the shift away from plastics. Research and development costs money and one of plastics’ most ingrained advantages is their low cost. However, the business case is shifting with consumer sentiment and governmental attention. There is a long-term trend for increased environmental awareness among the public, and recent phenomena like the international popularity of Sir David Attenborough’s BBC Blue Planet 2 have accelerated that.
Consumers are starting to expect and demand plastic-free or reduced-plastic alternatives. In some cases, they are even willing to pay a small premium to get this – it’s a trend that’s here to stay. When industry first started replacing plastics with renewable alternatives, the goal was always to replicate the look and feel of plastic as closely as possible as that was what people were comfortable with. Now many customers are actively attracted to packaging that looks like wood fibre. It’s premium. Brown is the new black.
So, there’s cause for optimism. There is a growing business case for replacing plastics with renewable materials, along with ongoing research and development into new ways to do so. Wood, as one of few resources that regrow and that are fully recyclable and biodegradable, will play a major part in this movement. Saving the environment is a global concern, which is why a plastic free future has never looked so achievable.