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In conversation – a materials insight special edition

In conversation – a materials insight special edition

In conversation – a materials insight special edition

According to Canadean’s latest research, the global paper and board market is set to reach 136,976 million units by 2018, representing about 8.7% of the total packaging materials market. This is a growing market, however, and one that customers see as the most sustainable and trustworthy. Matthew Rogerson finds out more.

Paper packaging is inescapable. It holds your soup in cartons, your cereal in boxes, your fast food, toiletries, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and your drinks… the list is incredibly long. While there has been recent loss to flexible plastic pouches in some sectors, this is a material consumers are familiar with and trust. It is easy to print on, it can be resourced sustainably, and it has a defined waste management process, which makes recycling a much more straightforward proposition than is the case with triplex-layered films.

I spoke with a number of brand-owners and retailers, to understand a little more about how paper was perceived as a packaging material.

My first discussion was with Associated British Foods’ technical department. At their request, I have avoided using the name of the respondent, but they are responsible for global packaging management, across multiple divisions (save Primark, which handles its own packaging).

"Typically, we see recyclability as one of the key benefits of paper packaging," said a spokesperson. "This has an additional commercial benefit if the supply chain is set up to produce efficiencies, which means that we can produce a higher volume and quality of paper packaging at less cost than a comparable run using rigid plastics, metal or glass. An example of this is when we look at paper versus plastics sacks; the former is far more commercially attractive and the same, or better, aesthetics can be achieved."

When asked about some of the challenges, they continued: "Like all packaging, determining the optimum functional specification is a key challenge, but it is not one that is limited to paper and board. Currently, for the paper and board packaging in our organization, one of the biggest challenges is migration of mineral oil hydrocarbons through coatings and barriers. How do we find a solution to this problem that addresses the legislation, but does not prevent the product from being fully recycled? It is no good to provide a barrier that addresses the legislation, or protects the food, but is then unrecyclable, as that simply pushes the problem from one area (ink migration, or food safety) into another (waste management) without a concrete solution in place.

"Another hot topic is deforestation, and producers having the assurance that associated supply chains are sustainable and ethically managed. From these challenges, we move to some of the wider trends that are being addressed."

Pulp fact
When it comes to the main trends driving packaging, this article could easily run into several hundred pages to provide a full and comprehensive roundup of all the various moving parts that are driving growth in the industry. At a recent roundtable discussion on sustainable packaging, where paper featured quite heavily, I was able to get some insight from executives in the packaging teams about what they are looking for in packaging.

For Stuart Blyth, principal scientist at Mondelez, the focus is on protecting the product.

"For us, protecting the product is the most important consideration, followed by cost and the fit with other products, and finally we would come to sustainability. Protecting products has to be the primary purpose of development. Without this, all other considerations cease to matter."

This is by no means a singular perspective. For Sahab Satsgani, packaging change manager at GSK, protection of the product is vital, as the pharmaceutical industry has stringent standards that must be maintained especially when working with ethical pharmaceuticals.

"We need transparency and traceability, and to comply with child safety and senior-friendliness standards across all our products, but protecting the product remains the leading requirement of our packaging. If the product is not fit for purpose, the fallout of can be catastrophic."

Lars Lundquist, who is the packaging environmental sustainability expert in Nestlé, provided some more insight into food contact and end of life needs.

"End-of-life is a key trend and theme in packaging, and as the key brands strive to reclaim more and more raw materials as part of their sustainability commitments, it will remain important for years to come. When we look at paper, for example, in cereal boxes, they have an incredibly efficient recycle stream in place, which means it is easy to separate the liner and carton, reclaim the materials and reuse the material without compromising quality or sustainability targets. Any material contamination presents a big problem, as we cannot use the affected material and must start the process again, which is costly in resources, value and time."

Returning to ABF, our discussion turned to main trends driving packaging, and how paper is best suited to address them. Several were discussed, including the challenge between an innovation and the operating requirements to make the innovation. As paper is versatile, and there are a number of treatment options to improve the barrier and prevent moisture, grease or migration, there is a lot of scope for functional and aesthetically pleasing products for consumers. If an innovation is designed without consideration of the manufacturing process, it will lead to issues later on.

Growth versus sustainability
Paper offers benefits compared with plastics as a sustainable material that has excellent end of life attributes and it is easier to ramp up production of paper without being affected by oil price fluctuations. Economic and demographic changes, meanwhile, are leading to smaller pack sizes (due to affordability), smaller family units, more working single people and a move away from once-weekly shopping trips to big, out-of-town supermarkets towards multiple visits to smaller ‘metro’ stores with fewer product ranges.

Paper provides one of the best options for retail ready packaging, so the box can go from the truck straight to the shelf, without having to be stored elsewhere, or with overly complicated wrapping to get through.

When it comes to innovation, customers tend to expect paper to be able to offer the same as plastics in terms of lacquers, varnishes, coatings and so on. ABF sees suppliers driving many of the solutions to this problem, whether this is in terms of replacement (moving from metal or plastics into paper, for example), or gaining more market share.

Legislation brings a host of innovations and requests for further information or education, particularly in such a dynamic market, where the law is constantly evolving to account for multiple municipal, national and global bodies and lobby groups.

The uniformity of paper, which can provide certification and control quality across a global market, is seen as a key benefit. This must be balanced against a range of considerations, such as whether to use only virgin pulp, or to reclaim paper for manufacturing. If the latter is adopted, companies need to ensure that there is no migration, or leaching, of mineral oils or inks to contaminate the recycled product. Given the aggressive nature of many of the chemicals needed to treat effectively for barrier coatings, recycling is usually a limited option.

ABF continues: "The question up for debate at the moment is, will a barrier or coating be required on primary products that are recycled? If we look at German legislation, the answer is probably yes. The second question is, are barrier coatings required on primary products using virgin boards? Again, maybe, yes.
"If a barrier coating is the only way to meet legal limits set for migration of hydrocarbons, in many cases this will prompt producers in virgin to switch to coated recycled for commercial reasons. What does that do to availability and prices of recycled papers, though? If we look at materials such as corrugated, the delta between recycled and virgin is already at historic levels in terms of cost proximity."

This debate chimes with Phil Davidson, sustainability manager for HAVI Global Solutions, which counts a number of major brands, including McDonald’s, among its clients.

"Our customers focus on recyclability and end-of-life scenarios. Using paper is seen as a win, as it is sustainable, easy to recycle or dispose of, and the costs are relatively stable, which allows for better forward planning."