For decades, we have been living with plastic packaging, which has spread to all our product areas. They can be used flexibly, offer good barriers, are light and durable as well as easy to combine. However, triggered by a new focus through legislation and also attention from consumers, plastic is now being strongly scrutinized.
Aspects such as fossil raw material sources and the associated environmental pollution, microplastics in rivers and oceans, and even the major problem of plastic waste in the world's oceans have awaken consumers and governments worldwide. Not yet in the same focus, but also relevant, are the suspected health risks from plastics to the human body. As a result, two main demands on packaging from retailers and consumers are currently becoming even louder: recyclability as well as the demand for plastic-free packaging.
Recycling of plastic packaging
The recyclability of plastic packaging fails in particular due to two essential aspects: a comprehensive infrastructure for collection, sorting and recycling in almost all countries of the world, and a very limited recyclability of packaging to enable its use for new packaging. Mechanical recycling has its limits, and the contamination of recyclates virtually rules out their use for food, non-food, cosmetics and animal feed, with a few exceptions. PET bottles are the (in)praiseworthy exception here, as they are largely withdrawn from a functioning reuse for beverage bottles and used for one-time use in other products of textiles or films. As a result, fresh raw materials - usually from fossil resources - are used for PET bottles. Although this makes it possible to advertise the use of recycled materials in packaging, but of course the fact that new raw materials are used at the beginning of the chain is not mentioned. Consumers are aware of this, as our own survey in 2020 has shown: recyclable packaging is rated less sustainable than packaging made from recyclate. One offers a promise for the future, the other has already happened.
New recycling technologies such as chemical, solvent-based or enzymatic recycling offer much better approaches for the use of recyclate in the future, but they are still in the development process and only on the verge of reaching industrial standard. It will still be a few years before they can be used on a mass standard.
Fiber-based packaging with barrier
Overall, the approach of relying on recyclable packaging made of plastics alone is not enough. On one hand, Germany offers a very good waste disposal and recycling infrastructure, but on the other hand as an exporting nation we transport millions of tons of plastic packaging abroad, where this infrastructure does not exist. This happens in two ways: directly as a packaged product, which then ends up in waste, landfill, incineration or, in the worst case, in nature, where it remains for decades and centuries. Or we export hundreds of thousands of tons of plastic waste abroad, as listed in the recently published Plastics Atlas (www.bund.net).
One solution that arises from all the above-mentioned aspects and problems is new fiber-based packaging, which has been increasingly appearing on the market in recent years. Paper and fibers were previously considered to be packaging materials that did not offer sufficient barrier properties and were therefore hardly used for many applications such as food or non-food. However, it is often overlooked that solutions existed decades ago which were then replaced by plastic variants. This often happened as a result of changes in consumer habits, as in the case of packaged products.
But new barriers - some of them bio-based - have been developed that, in combination with paper and fibers, take over the function of plastics. For one it’s thin films or barriers made of coatings or varnishes applied to the fiber materials. High-tech barriers such as Siox coating are also being used more often, just as it’s done with plastic cups or PET bottles.
Recycling despite barrier
When companies contact us looking for plastic-free packaging or recyclable alternatives, there is a lot of ignorance about fiber packaging and its recyclability. On one hand, there is a misconception that a foiled paper is not recyclable in the waste paper stream. On the other hand, this is assumed for papers and cardboards that contain more than 5 % foreign material, as well. Both of these are fundamentally wrong.
Neither a film on a fiber package nor a foreign content of more than 5 % is per se an exclusion criterion for fiber recycling. It always depends on the way the package is constructed and the choice of material, as well as the packaged product: whether or not it adheres to the packaging as residual material, and how this adherence contaminates the fibers. For this reason, Pacoon always recommends testing the recyclability of waste paper in all approaches to solutions and always considers this in its own developments of new packaging.
Currently, many new fiber-based solutions are coming onto the market, for example Nestlé's packaging for Nesquik, Frosta's deep-freeze bags, pasta packaging such as from Albgold or chocolate from Ritter (as a test). Pacoon has also been able to show in the past that barrier packaging on fiber material is not a contradiction and that recyclability is achieved. Whether for cookies, chocolate or frozen pizza - the possibilities are more diverse than generally assumed. One area where new developments are expected to emerge in the next few years is fiber molding. It offers flexible molds, stable packages, barrier coatings and good recyclability.
Globally developed recycling infrastructure
Papers and fibers as a packaging base have another advantage, especially for export-oriented manufacturers. What exists only to a very small extent with plastics, papers have already brought with them for decades. A widespread infrastructure of paper and cardboard collection and waste paper recycling worldwide. This has also shown a survey from 2018 to 2019 in many countries. Certainly, the standard is far from harmonized. But paper recyclers have recognized the opportunity and challenge and want to set more standards and also consider new paper packaging in order to maintain or increase recycling quality. This was again made clear recently at the Ingede symposium at the Leipa company in Schwedt, Germany.
And there is another aspect that promotes the use of fiber packaging: the footprint in nature. Provided the packaging developers do their job well and the barriers are recyclable and biodegradable - which is certainly possible - then the footprint in nature (on land, in rivers or in the sea) can also be significantly reduced. If the fiber comes off, the barrier dissolves, is harmless to wildlife, or can even serve as food if necessary.
And ultimately, the marketing aspect plays a crucial role, as well. As surveys conducted in 2011 and 2020 were able to confirm, fiber packaging has a very high ecological perception among consumers as a renewable resource. Combining this aspect with the right feel, look and recyclability offers benefits for the brand image in times when sustainable packaging plays an increasingly important role in the purchasing decision.
Therefore, Pacoon is also firmly convinced that fiber-based packaging with barriers is a very good way to address many of the problems of plastic packaging, if the packaging is designed correctly.