Packaging has become an omnipresent part of modern life in recent years. As e-commerce grows more pervasive and increasing online shopping options drive up the number of deliveries worldwide, advanced packaging technologies become crucial factors for ensuring convenience, product safety, and consumer satisfaction.
Given the prolific rise in consumer demands over the years, the packaging domain has been witness to many evolutions, in terms of new choices in substrates to the exploration of new end-use markets. Perhaps the most prominent of these changes was the shift in preference towards plastics over other substrates.
However, this change led to expansive usage of single-use plastic packaging over the years, which quickly began to be viewed as a heavy burden on environmental health. With consumers and industries worldwide growing more attuned to the environmental hazards associated with plastic, the shift in preference towards eco-friendly alternatives has sparked new opportunities for the paperboard packaging market in recent years.
Paper-based packaging, once considered the traditional packaging choice, owing to high availability and excellent performance characteristics was becoming significantly overshadowed by the rise of alternatives like plastics. However, fueled by the recent anti-plastic sentiments and the rising demand across the globe for designed-in recyclability in the modern era, the material is witnessing a considerable resurgence.
Paperboard packaging solutions demonstrate myriad beneficial properties. In addition to its recyclability, compostability, and renewable nature, paperboard packaging also imparts a more natural value to packaging, which is considered to be a boon in the increasingly eco-conscious current consumer landscape.
Rise of sustainable packaging – is paper-based packaging the way to go?
Packaged products are becoming increasingly popular in recent times, which has in turn increased the pervasiveness of packaging in modern life. Studies suggest that an average western world consumer will handle over 50 packaged items each day. These statistics, which suggest that packaging is becoming more prevalent with each passing day, is also highlighting the importance of understanding the ecological impact of these packaging products.
Even before initiatives like Blue Planet began to shed light on the massive contribution of the packaging industry towards ocean pollution, plastic packaging products had already begun to gain a reputation for their environmental footprint. According to reports by Ellen MacArthur Foundation, only 14% of the globally used plastic packaging is recycled, while more than 40% of packaging ends up in landfills.
These alarming numbers have thus triggered a drive towards more sustainable packaging options. Sustainable packaging refers to the discovery, development, and adoption of packaging products with minimal environmental footprints and impact.
Various businesses and packaging vendors are also showing growing propensity towards sustainable packaging, as more evidentiary support comes to light for the materials. For instance, a World Economic Forum report revealed that consumers show a willingness to spend more on goods and services from companies that follow sustainable practices.
The use of paperboard for packaging, especially, is well-positioned to create growth prospects for the packaging industry in an increasingly sustainability-driven world. Paper is able to offer various benefits in terms of recyclability, renewability, and compostability. Furthermore, paperboard packaging solutions can generate long-term commercial viability, as they give products a more natural aesthetic, creating an appearance of sustainability.
Packaging suppliers in the modern era are increasingly turning to paper-based packaging as an eco-friendlier alternative to plastic. A notable example of this was a move by UK supermarket Iceland, which involved the removal of all plastic-based packaging for its products such as bananas, and its replacement with a band made from recycled paper.
While the use of substitute materials for conventional plastic packaging materials is a prominent path towards a circular economy, another circular approach has been garnering significant interest of late; recycling. Several prominent business entities are setting design objectives geared towards recycling and recovery, thereby increasing the use of recycled content in packaging solutions. Recycled and recyclable packaging is considered an ideal way to extend the life cycle of used materials and has been making substantial strides in the development of packaging products like containers, mailers, or boxes.
Paperboard products are among the most commonly used materials in recyclable packaging. Given that the material is made using paper pulp, is lightweight and easily formed, the use of paperboard for recyclable packaging products, such as shipping boxes, is gaining massive popularity in recent years.
In August 2020, CCEP (Coca-Cola European Partners) introduced a paperboard packaging solution, dubbed CanCollar, designed for multipack cans. The novel packaging technology was designed to be 100% recyclable and was developed as a replacement for the current hi-cone solution, in order to achieve potential savings of over 18 tons of plastic in a year.
Evolutions abound in paperboard packaging as COVID-19 amplifies focus on pre-packed foods
While sustainability efforts have undoubtedly played their part, the recent COVID-19 pandemic has contributed significantly to an immense shift in consumer buying patterns over the past few months. Taking the rising preference for purchasing packaged goods for instance; the announcement of nationwide lockdowns and social distancing directives led to a massive surge in panic buying and hoarding which created a sharp rise in the sale of pre-packaged items, particularly food & beverages.
According to a New York Times report in April 2020, even healthy eaters made the shift to packaged foods as people became confined to their homes during the lockdown phase. The report also suggested that due to the closure of restaurants and other food establishments, the demand for products like frozen pizza grew exponentially, thereby amplifying the sales statistics of various food businesses including Kraft Heinz, Cheerios, Campbell Soup Company, Doritos, and Cheetos, among many others.
This rising popularity of packaged goods worldwide also intensified the focus on the packaging industry, which began to engage in several development and innovation activities to accommodate the evolving consumer demands.
To illustrate, a group of graduate students from the Brooklyn-based Pratt Institute’s packaging and industrial-design departments, started to work on various ideas for advanced packaging solutions. One group, for instance, crafted an idea for a paperboard box, featuring a fold-it-yourself spoon/fork combo, which could be torn by diners from a perforated edge.
Some companies like Metsä Board also addressed the common challenge to using paperboard for packaging; its vulnerability to moisture and grease. Metsä Board tackled this issue by developing a novel plastic-free eco-barrier paperboard, easily recycled in paperboard or paper waste streams. The new packaging product, dubbed the MetsäBoard Prime FBB EB, is designed to deliver a medium barrier against grease and moisture, making it highly suitable for food packaging. Also, since the eco-barrier paperboard is free of plastic, it requires no separation process, making its recycling easier and more cost-effective.