New laws are having an impact on the manufacture and use of plastics. The food and beverage industry is responding by switching packaging to more sustainable products.
Once upon a time, the use of plastic in food and beverage packaging was a revelation. Plastics were found to help maintain food quality, increase shelf life and make packing and shipping easier. However, plastic’s adverse environmental effects have burgeoned. Nearly all plastic waste is incinerated, dumped in landfills or in water—very little is recycled currently. Water pollution, health issues, threats to marine life, and landfills containing harmful chemicals are consequences of plastic usage and disposal.
Recently, a report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation predicted that by 2050, plastic in the sea will outweigh marine life in it. According to the European Union, up to 85 percent of marine litter in EU waters is now plastic. Additionally, a recent Pew Charitable Trust study showed that 11 million tons of plastic waste enters the ocean annually—left uncontrolled, this value would grow to 29 million metric tons per year by the year 2040.
As a result, state, country and regional governments are starting to take legislative action to minimize the environmental impact of plastic. Many of these actions focus on eliminating plastic bags, straws and other single-use items such as Styrofoam cups, while other actions target the per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) family of chemicals.
Examples of legislative actions on single-use plastics include:
Plastic-lined plates are subject to the EU restriction, including the (bio)plastic applied on it, while coffee cups are not banned “in the absence of non-plastic alternatives for the same applications being available on a sufficient scale.”
For PFAS, some countries have passed laws regulating the use of certain compounds, while others are offering guidance at this point:
The paper packaging industry now has an opportunity to help address the issue of plastic pollution, developing innovative packaging solutions that could be as functional as plastics while being readily compostable, recyclable and repulpable.
However, several challenges must be addressed for paper-based packaging to replace plastics. These include:
Function – Many applications require that the package be resistant to water and moisture, oil and grease and other chemicals. The package must have the strength and durability to protect the contents in a variety of conditions. In food packaging, food safety requirements must be met without compromise. To address functionality needs, new environmentally friendly and more sustainable barrier coatings are being developed to replace traditional barriers, such as polyethylene or PFAS, that are used in paper packaging today.
Composting – Particularly for food packaging, meeting industrial and home composting standards is critical to minimizing pollution. The Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) and TUV Austria are examples of certification bodies that set requirements for composting packaging articles. In addition, Belgian-based OWS provides testing services on biodegradability, compostability and ecotoxicity for Solenis and other companies.
Repulping – The paper industry has been a standard bearer for reuse of paper as an alternative to using wood pulp. Paper cups are typically produced from virgin paper but cannot be easily recycled or repulped due to the polyethylene liners used as a water barrier. Standards for repulpability have been developed by The Fibre Box Association and American Forest and Paper Association, and certification and testing can be obtained through Western Michigan University.
Manufacturing – Any new innovations must be manufactured in commercial operations and achieve similar productivity and quality standards as current products. This is a significant challenge, as incumbent technologies have been in place for decades and optimized to achieve accepted cost and quality standards. In some cases, to achieve the required functionality of the package, new investment in equipment will be required and new value chains will have to be developed. For example, polyethylene barriers are laminated to paper using extrusion equipment. New, more sustainable barrier coatings will be applied to paper using totally different equipment, such as curtain coaters.
Cost – Despite the focus on sustainability, cost will always be a key focus for brand owners and consumers. The premium that brand owners and consumers will pay for a more sustainable solution is still a big question mark. Even if legislation phases out incumbent technologies, there will still be a focus on developing the most cost-effective alternative solution.
To overcome these difficult challenges, several industry consortiums have emerged that include brand owners, packaging companies, paper producers and raw material suppliers. Examples of major industry consortiums include:
The Sustainable Packaging Coalition, a membership-based collaborative that believes in the power of industry to make packaging more sustainable. They are a leading voice on sustainable packaging and are passionate about the creation of packaging that is good for people and the environment.
A cross-industry alliance, 4evergreen, fosters synergies among companies promoting low-carbon and circular fiber-based packaging. By bringing together the entire value chain, 4evergreen enables cooperation with a comprehensive outlook on fiber-based packaging’s life cycle.
VTT’s Piloting Alternatives to Plastics project has assembled over 50 companies to cooperate to reduce need for plastics by using natural fibers.
The NextGenCup challenge by Closed Loop Partners is sponsored by major brand owners like Starbucks, McDonalds, Wendy’s, Yum Brands and Nestle to develop innovative solutions that have the potential to turn the 250 billion fiber to-go cups used annually from waste into a valuable material in the recycling system.
For its part, Solenis has been developing packaging materials for food and beverage that leverage away from plastics, by coating paper/cardboard with PFAS-free polymer materials that can keep water and grease from destroying packaging. These inventions include the TopScreen™ biowax-based barrier coatings, TopScreen™ oil and grease-resistant barrier coatings (for flexible packages and cups), water-repellent barrier coatings (for paper and cardboard), and ContourSM PFAS-free oil and grease resistant technology (for molded paper pulp). In its recommendations, the OECD report on PFAS mentioned TopScreen™ as an alternative to that family of barrier chemicals.
Solenis also has been working with food packaging industry companies worldwide to develop more sustainable, cost-effective barriers that enable paper-based packaging that can be incorporated into a wide variety of supply chains.
In 2019, Solenis was one of 12 winners in the NextGen Cup Challenge, a global competition to develop a recyclable and/or compostable fiber to-go cup. It won for its TopScreen™ barrier coating invention, which allows for more sustainable use of paper to make a reusable, recyclable portable cup, the mainstay of the fast-service food and beverage industry.
Learn more about these efforts to reduce plastic on our food and beverage paper packaging webpage. And if you would like to collaborate on driving innovation in sustainable food and beverage packaging, contact us today.