Amped-up Paper, Other Materials Make Inroads on Rigid Plastics

It’s too soon to say if all the anti-virgin plastic rhetoric from environmental critics will have a lasting impact on the packaging materials mix.

Ben Miyares, Packaging Sherpa, President, The Packaging Management Institute, Inc.
Ben Miyares, Packaging Sherpa, President, The Packaging Management Institute, Inc.

Still, it is interesting to note that recent market developments include a lot of high-profile moves away from plastic packaging. It’s hard to say if the changes are being made strictly out of a sincere belief that plastic packages are not as good an environmental choice as other materials, fear of coming environmental anti-plastic regulatory prodding, or simply, economics.

Nestlé’s transition to paper for its entire family of Smarties candies packaging formats certainly isn’t a cost-cutting measure. Last year the company invested some $2 billion to “lead the shift from virgin plastics to food-grade recycled plastics and to accelerate the development of innovative sustainable packaging solutions.” The move to recyclable paper candy wraps will help in achieving Nestlé’s commitment to make all of its packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025. Among the Smarties packs getting a materials redo, the most dramatic is the brand’s replacement of its iconic plastic tube by four hexagonal paper sleeves held together with a perforated paper label that permits the consumer to tear off one hex tube of candies at a time. The Smarties family move follows the conversion last year of Nestle’s Yes! candy bar to recyclable paper wraps. “By 2025, 100 percent of our packaging will be recyclable or reusable and we will reduce our use of virgin plastics by one third,” says Nestlé in a web post.

For certain flexible packaging applications, micro-fibrillated cellulose (MFC) may well provide packagers new moisture and oxygen barrier paper options that can compete with plastics. Researchers from North Carolina State University, Department of Forest Biomaterials who’ve been studying MFCs for at least 10 years, indicate “various nanocelluloses can be incorporated into packaging products and barrier layers by diverse means, with particular promise having been shown for solution casting, melt-extrusion, and electrospinning technologies, among others,” (read the study at pwgo.to/6049).

As part of its Ambition 2030 Environmental Sustainability goals, P&G Beauty in Europe now packs a number of its haircare brands in reusable/refillable aluminum bottles for refilling by consumers with recyclable polyethylene pouches. P&G sees this initiative halting production of approximately 300 million virgin plastic bottles per year starting this year. The refill pouches use approximately 60% less PE than the bottles they replace.

The COVID-19 epidemic introduced tough Valor® glass (read my column on it at pwgo.to/6050) to withstand the rigors of COVID-19 vaccine production and distribution. The Johnson & Johnson/Merck collaboration to produce and distribute J&J’s vaccine is boosting demand for cold chain shippers, but ultra-low temperature shipper sales may tail off post-pandemic because J&J’s COVID-19 vaccine doesn’t require ultra-low storage temps, and the Pfizer/BioNTech vax got FDA’s okay for distribution/storage at conventional freezer temps (~0º F).

General Mills’ Nature Valley Crunchy Granola bar polyethylene wraps are now designated “Store Drop Recyclable” by GreenBlue’s How2Recycle. The newly packaged bars are on shelves this spring and bring Nature Valley closer to achieving GMI’s commitment to 100% recyclable packaging by 2025.

In a radical departure from the personal care norm, Tom’s of Maine, a subsidiary of Palmolive, is now filling its Natural Strength deodorant line in push-up paperboard sleeves instead of rigid plastic tubes to “reduce plastic waste, developing and using plastic packaging that is actually recyclable and opting for alternatives to plastic as well.”

Self-sterilizing polymers are the outgrowth of a collaboration among North Carolina State University, Boston University, and specialty chemicals manufacturer Kraton Corp. They’ve demonstrated a family of self-sterilizing anionic polymers they say are capable of deactivating coronaviruses, including SARS-CoV-2, the one causing COVID-19.

Another collaboration focused more directly on packaging is promoting recycled sugarcane fiber rather than traditional paper fiber for making dual-ovenable, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substance (PFAS)-free, molded bowls for refrigerated and frozen prepared foods. Branded Natrellis™, the bowl “provides an alternative to more traditional rigid plastic packages used by the majority of refrigerated and frozen food products on the market,” say its co-developers, Sonoco and Tellus (read Packaging World’s coverage of the first commercial application, with KraftHeinz brand Primal Kitchen, at pwgo.to/6051). “This new sugarcane-based package is further evidence of our commitment to developing more sustainable options for brands and consumers alike,” says Ernest Haynes, Sonoco division vice president and general manager, Rigid Paper and Closures, North America.

Whether anti-virgin plastic sentiment persists or not, it is not likely to spell the end to polymer packaging development and adoption. We do believe there are dramatic changes ahead. We expect further advances in the life and afterlife of plastic, paper, glass, and packaging. And we expect those advances, like the ones cited here, will come closer to balancing the environmental cost/user benefits equation of tomorrow’s packaging. Our products still need to be protected on their circular journey from birth to rebirth. And packaging—including plastic packaging—will play a vital, balancing role in that equation.


Ben Miyares, Packaging Sherpa, is a packaging market and technology analyst and is president of The Packaging Management Institute, Inc. He can be reached at bmiyares@packmgmt.org.


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