Renewable energies: opportunities for fiber-based packaging | Article


As the plastics industry finds its own ways to build circularity and tackle the huge problem of plastic waste, paper producers are scrambling to develop their own renewable alternatives to replace – at least in part – some petrochemical materials that are currently in use. dominate the packaging industry.

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

“Growing Opportunities”

In which sectors or applications do we see the greatest opportunities for renewable energy – especially fiber-based alternatives – to replace plastics? The most obvious is the power supply, where there are already noticeable shifts towards paper. We have, for example, heard a lot about Pabocos revolutionary paper bottle, featuring a paper outer shell with a thin plastic barrier inside, which has been tested by companies such as Carlsberg, Coca-Cola and Absolut.

“Innovations in barrier papers started with fiber-based packaging with a plastic liner, but also catering items such as plates and cutlery,” says Anna Papagrigoraki, director of sustainability at Cepi. “But now other innovations will replace plastic liners and coatings with natural polymers such as micro-fibrillated cellulose or molded packaging.”

But while food remains the biggest market for paper-based packaging, there are growing opportunities in other sectors in the coming years – such as industrial goods, pet food or personal care. – including cardboard tubes for the primary packaging of cosmetics.

“While the food industry is important for paper, we are increasingly moving from plastic to fiber-based paper,” says Aude Paustian, Product Development Manager. BBC Cellpack packaging, “For several months, we have also been studying opportunities in the cosmetics market. In the past, cosmetic packaging focused on a ‘premium’ look with metallic effects, but with growing consumer interest in sustainability, there has been a change. In France, for example, the trend is for “hard” cosmetics that consumers can buy in solid form and then add water to make the cosmetic themselves. In this kind of cosmetics, paper can have a very important place.

Opportunities and progress

And if we look at it from a non-industry perspective, advances in renewable packaging technologies are happening rapidly and massively in many areas. We’ve already mentioned paper bottles, but we can also add to that paper-compatible renewable inks – such as Siegwerk’s UniNATURE packaging inks formulated with high bio-renewable content, the very worthy overall winner of our 2022 Sustainability Award.

“For flexible packaging, there are certainly papers that offer high water vapor barriers in advanced conditions and oxygen barriers, without using coatings with PVDC or other undesirable substances,” says Alexander. Rauer, FlexTech Business Development Manager and Flexible Packaging Paper Product Manager, Koehler paper. “There is also a trend to reduce the weight of base paper without compromising performance on packaging lines. There are now many companies offering heat-sealable paper, but most of them only with grammages above 80 gsm. On the hard side, there are molded fiber products for blister packs or boxes with childproof features, and many more.

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

“Limits of fiber-based packaging”

However, we must remember that going renewable does not always mean the most sustainable or practical solution. There are certainly still many limitations to fiber-based packaging. In particular, as food packaging must protect the packaged products for as long as necessary in order to ensure resource efficiency, barrier properties must be added to paper and until now these have been mainly polymer-based, which compromises recyclability. How is the industry doing it?

“Innovation is gradually replacing this plastic layer so that paper can derive its barrier properties from a natural polymer that is not chemically modified while remaining biodegradable and recyclable,” explains Anna Papagrigoraki. “Another property that needs ‘help’ is transparency and flexibility. However, research and innovation has some examples such as CrystalTM for food packaging, so that consumers can quickly identify the product(s) they are buying. Uses include food packaging, non-food packaging, and graphic applications such as envelope windows.

Any liquid products or more humid foods also remain difficult to wrap using packaging made from renewable fibres. As Alexander Rauer puts it, “Liquid products or products with very high barrier requirements in packaging formats that have to withstand extreme loads or severe weather conditions will be a big problem in the future of high-pressure packaging. paper base”.

Another big challenge with paper packaging is sealing – an issue that BBC Cellpack Packaging, among other companies, have been working hard to solve. Aude Paustian explains: “Certain papers can have interesting barrier properties but are not sealable, or vice versa. So what is needed to solve this problem is close collaboration between the paper producer and the converter to achieve these two things. We are currently involved in projects to this end.

‘A choice between renewable or recyclable?’

So yes, there are limits to paper that still need to be overcome for it to gain a stronger position in packaging sectors traditionally dominated by plastics. But another question is: should it really come down to a choice between renewable or recyclable; plastic or paper?

“We need both,” Aude Paustian tells us succinctly. “The advantage of paper-based packaging over plastics is that we can really have both renewable and recyclable; we can do both. This is why, for us, barrier sealing papers are crucial, but the recyclability of the paper can also depend on country-specific legislation. In France, it is necessary to have 50% content to be recyclable and elsewhere, it is rather 85%.

Efforts are being made to this end as we write. 4evergreen, a cross-industry alliance aiming to optimize the circularity of fibre-based packaging, is accelerating the development and adoption of new technologies to address targeted sorting or recycling challenges, in particular for barrier paper and board, with the aim achieve an overall recycling rate of 90%. rate of fiber-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 growing interest in the field of bioplastics where, according to Anna Papagrigoraki, much of the focus is on replicating the efficiency of conventional polymers but using a natural raw material. But this is by no means a simple substitution, which perhaps explains why bioplastics still represent a very small percentage of the overall packaging market.

“When one material replaces the other in a product, it must be recyclable, biodegradable, fulfill its functions and also comply with European legislation, including the directive on single-use plastics,” says Anna. “At the same time, information about its sourcing, production and environmental performance must be communicated across the value chain, including the consumer, clearly and avoiding greenwashing. It’s a high order, but something to keep your eyes peeled for future innovations. However, bioplastics will still need to be recycled in practice and, if this is no longer possible, composted with the appropriate infrastructure.

Building future resilience through renewable energy

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 striving to achieve this. The future is renewable.

“Anything made from fossils can be made from wood,” says Anna. “We can see emerging bio-based products going much further than pulp and paper which are classified as materials, chemicals, fuels, feeds, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics and can be used either as intermediates or products. finished in sectors such as automotive, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and medical products (tissue growth, anyone?), but packaging will always remain a key sector.

“Perhaps in 2030 we could envision completely plastic-free packaging. So many technologies are studied and modeled that surely one or two will really make the market and reach the consumer.


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