By Saabira Chaudhuri
Consumer-goods companies are increasingly substituting paper for
plastic packaging but face a big challenge: how to stop products
from going stale or soggy.
Slashing plastic waste is a major concern for makers of food,
drinks, cleaning sprays and personal-care products, as they grapple
with regulatory pressure and scrutiny from consumers. In response,
companies like Nestlé SA and Unilever PLC are turning to paper as
an alternative to hard-to-recycle plastics.
Executives say they opt for paper because it is made from a
renewable source and is easily recyclable and consumers aren't
confused about which bin it goes in. Paper and cardboard are
steadily replacing plastic straws, bags, fruit trays and shrink
wrap for drinks.
That trend is forecast to accelerate, particularly in Europe,
which is implementing new regulation to curb plastic waste,
including a U.K. tax on plastic packaging. UBS estimates paper
could capture 11% of plastic packaging's market share in Europe --
worth about $9.4 billion -- between next year and 2031, in areas
like food, drink and personal care. Globally, it estimates paper
has a $38.7 billion market opportunity to replace plastic over this
"There's a lot of momentum behind single-use plastics
replacement," said Colin McIntyre, head of paper and recycling at
DS Smith PLC. The British paper maker says it has found 650 areas
in which plastic can be replaced with paper-based packaging. "This
is a really, really key focus for us," Mr. McIntyre said.
But paper comes with major drawbacks. It doesn't have the
protective properties that keep food fresh, making it unsuitable to
replace some of the hardest-to-recycle plastics used for chip
packets, baby-food pouches and produce bags.
"Plastics are highly functional. They're water-resistant,
grease-resistant, easy to seal," said Patrick Lindner, chief
innovation officer at WestRock Co., a paper-packaging maker based
in Atlanta. "Getting paper to behave like plastic is a tremendous
One burgeoning technology involves coating paper to make it
resistant to oxygen, liquids, humidity and grease. But giving paper
plasticlike properties can complicate paper recycling. Draft
legislation in Europe threatens to regulate plastic-coated paper as
Nestlé, the world's biggest packaged-foods maker, has started
using coated paper packets instead of ones layered with plastic and
aluminum for its Yes! snack bars and some Nesquik cocoa powder. The
coating is plastic but dissolves in the paper-recycling process,
said Gerhard Niederreiter, head of Nestlé's packaging institute.
That distinguishes it from most paper cups and sandwich boxes whose
tightly bonded plastic liners make them hard to recycle.
Last month, Nestlé began wrapping its Maggi bouillon cubes in
paper, enhancing the coating used for Yes! and Nesquik to also be
But it still uses multilayer packaging containing plastic for
more sensitive items, such as instant coffee or infant-nutrition
products. It hasn't found technology that would offer enough
protection from oxygen and moisture and ensure nutrients don't
"It's a Holy Grail, this high barrier," Mr. Niederreiter
Unilever last year began selling its Carte d'Or brand in a paper
carton that has a cornstarch coating to preserve the ice cream in
freezing and moist conditions. The coated carton can be recycled at
paper mills or industrially composted, it says.
"We're moving many of our products, which are today in
multilayer plastic -- which is evil because you cannot recycle it
-- into paper or recyclable plastics," Hanneke Faber, head of
Unilever's food business, told investors after the Carte d'Or
But so far changes by Unilever, Nestlé and others in the
industry are limited to particular lines and only a few
Executives say shelf life and climate are big hurdles to wider
use of paper. Nestlé reduced the per-bag volume of Nesquik that is
packaged in paper because it had roughly half the shelf life
compared with plastic, Mr. Niederreiter said. Europe's relatively
mild humidity and temperatures are more conducive for paper
packaging than parts of Asia and Africa, he added.
Swapping paper for plastic for nonfood items -- for example, to
wrap multipacks of cans or toilet paper -- is less complicated,
although investing in production lines to handle paper is
expensive. Paper is harder to fold, less flexible and more easily
torn than plastic.
Plastic makers say paper poses its own threats to the
environment and uses more resources to produce. Deforestation, a
continuing concern, could rise if companies turn to paper in a big
One alternative to coatings are easily removable plastic liners
like those used in a bag-in-box version of Procter & Gamble
Co.'s Tide laundry detergent. Smurfit Kappa Group PLC, which
developed the packaging, prefers liners to coatings, which it says
can increase waste and raise costs for its paper mills.
"We have a very pure system with not a lot of waste that's
economically working and sustainable," said Smurfit innovation head
Arco Berkenbosch. "Any pollution that comes in there makes the
system less efficient."
Write to Saabira Chaudhuri at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
October 06, 2020 09:21 ET (13:21 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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