There has been a lot of movement in the market for paper packaging. The trend is clear: major FMCG companies are increasingly relying on the fiber material as part of their plastic reduction targets – thanks to innovations. So will all chocolate soon be wrapped in paper again, as it was in the 70s? One thing is clear: paper, too, must do its ecological homework in order to score points in climate protection and recycling management.
Paper-based packaging has recently been entering more and more fields of application that were previously the exclusive domain of plastic. The trend towards paper as a substitute for plastic is clearly discernible in the market. The main drivers are the major brands in the FMCG sector. In the course of their goals to reduce plastic, they are increasingly relying on the fiber material, which even in the sensitive area of food contact can score with ever better barrier properties thanks to continuous innovations.
Even though the trend towards paper will continue, especially in the food sector, we should not see the packaging material as the sole savior in the packaging sector. One reason: As usual, the challenges grow with the mass. In order for paper to be convincing in terms of climate protection and the circular economy, even with increasing use, it has to do homework, which is quite a task. If paper fails to provide convincing answers, it will not be able to keep its promise of positive environmental and climate effects.
The trend: Avoiding plastic with paper
Major FMCG brand companies such as Nestlé and Unilever have committed to comprehensive targets to reduce the use of plastic in their packaging. By substituting plastic with paper, the companies hope to score points in three key aspects of the sustainability debate: Climate protection, circular economy and prevention of ocean littering.
The examples are numerous. For example, after the YES! bar Nestlé is now packaging its Smarties in paper, as well. Ritter Sport has tested the first paper pilots for its chocolate squares, and Mars Wrigley recently put its Balisto bars on the shelves in paper packaging. But there is also movement beyond the confectionery sector, for example in frozen foods or ready meals for the microwave.
Paper: Saviour with limited liability?
So the trend is clear. But question marks remain over the environmental issue. Even though paper is often credited with having a better eco-balance, the climate footprint in particular is the subject of controversial debate. And there is also a need for improvement in terms of recycling management.
Climate: For large-scale paper production, a lot of forest has to be cut down and transported with heavy equipment. Even the subsequent reforestation does not come for free. Finally, paper production is very energy-intensive. For a good climate balance, therefore, paper production depends on sustainable forest management in combination with sustainable sources of electricity for production.
Circular economy: Without question, the systems for collection and material recycling are significantly better for paper than for plastics. The same applies to the rates of material recycling. Both aspects are crucial for the sustainable use of paper packaging, as the bifa environmental institute recently pointed out. For this reason, efforts in these fields must be further intensified, particularly in view of increasing paper consumption.
Back to the 70s?
Until the 1980s, almost all candy bars were packaged in paper. Only then did plastic begin its triumphant advance. However, the demands on food safety, environmental and climate protection have exploded over the last 40 years. Paper as a packaging material also has to face up to this.
For the moment and the near future, the trend is clear: we will see more and more paper packaging on the shelves. Thanks to exciting innovations, especially in the area of barriers, the material is constantly developing new areas of application. This is something to be welcomed – without seeing paper as the sole savior in the packaging sector.