In the flight from plastic, companies urged to think outside the box
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In the flight from plastic, companies urged to think outside the box

Jun 26, 2023

A delivery driver lifts a load of boxes on a trolley. E-commerce uses seven times the amount of packaging as store-based retail. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne Acquire Licensing Rights

August 1 - Could the drive to find plant-based alternatives to plastic packaging have unintended consequences for the world’s forests that are just as environmentally damaging?

Three billion trees are cut down every year to meet the global demand for paper packaging, which has grown by more than 65% in the past 15 to 20 years. The switch to e-commerce, which uses seven times the amount of packaging as store-based retail, could drive growth of at least another 20% in the next five years, according to Nicole Rycroft, founder and executive director of the Canadian environmental not-for-profit, Canopy.

Canopy has been working to turn this situation around through its Pack4Good initiative, launched in 2019, to highlight the fact that plastic is not the only problematic form of packaging. “We can’t just trade one environmental disaster for another,” Rycroft says.

Pack4Good now has 389 brands representing some $200 billion in annual revenues working on transforming their packaging supply chains to protect forests. It promotes alternatives such as recycled pulp and paper; alternative fibres such as agricultural waste; and, where forest fibres cannot be avoided, certification by the Forestry Stewardship Council.

Innovation in design to avoid the need for packaging altogether is also a focus. Fashion brands were the first to sign up, but many food and drink brands are part of the initiative now. Alternative fibres such as straw could enter mainstream use for paper production in the next few years, Rycroft says. Straw can already be used to make paper, but it tends to be made in very old mills, using older production systems and a very chemical-intensive process.

These are being replaced or upgraded with cleaner production technology that uses 70-90% less water, as well as lower energy and chemical inputs, and land use. It also provides a new revenue for farmers and reduces burning of straw typically used to dispose of it, she says.

Three billion trees are cut down every year to meet the global demand for paper packaging. REUTERS/Ben Nelms Acquire Licensing Rights

Canopy has been awarded $60 million over six years through The Audacious Project to work on scaling up next-generation paper and viscose production to 60 million tonnes by 2033. “Within this decade, we’re going to have replaced at least a third of the wood fibre currently being used to make paper packaging and textiles, and we’ll have eliminated the use of all ancient and endangered forests from the packaging and viscose supply chains,” says Rycroft.

There will be a significant shift even in the next two to three years, she believes, as mill upgrades and builds are already in the pipeline, including Nafici in China and ReStalk, an innovator planning to build its first European plant in France at the end of 2023, while a couple of ventures in the U.S. and Canada are moving forwards, she says.

An Indian plant already in operation produces paper from straw at price parity with that made from wood fibre, according to Rycroft. While paper from European plants may be more expensive to start with, with cheaper feedstock costs and much lower uses of water, energy and chemicals, the operating costs are likely to be around 30%-60% of a mill producing wood fibre, she says.

Commitments by brands under the Pack4Good initiative to purchase the output of the mills has pump-primed investment in the plants, which can cost up to $300 million, she adds.

“Brands are increasingly aware that climate change is already disrupting supply chains. There are extensive forest fires, there are floods, the market for recycled paper fibre is very, very tight. So there’s a real hunger in the marketplace to see lower carbon, next generation options on the market. They just need to know there’s a stable supply, and at the volumes they need,” she says.

One solution that businesses are opting for is closed-loop recycling for paper. Scotland-based Cullen has seen demand soar for its moulded pulp packaging, made from recycled byproducts of its corrugate packaging business, as businesses look to secure large supplies of plastic-free packaging.

Alternative fibres from agricultural waste products such as wheat straw and being used to make packaging. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol Acquire Licensing Rights

It is increasing production to one billion units per year, a 67% increase from 2021-2022. There is growing demand from retailers, health services and food and drink producers across the 34 countries it serves, according to David MacDonald, Cullen’s owner. The firm is being asked to make an increasingly diverse range of plastic packaging alternatives, such as trays, protective inserts and transport packs, he adds.

“I’ve been doing this a long time now and trying to replace plastic has always been a big push for us. We’ve had brick walls, to be honest, because it’s all about price, but in the past two years, we've seen our customers demand to be more sustainable,” he says.

Along with a big increase in demand for paper, other novel materials, including mushrooms, seaweed, cork and crustacean shells, are being actively considered as alternatives to plastic for packaging by entrepreneurs and corporations searching for the holy grail of sustainable packaging.

These products must achieve scale in order to compete with plastics, both in terms of cost, and to secure contracts with large corporations, which need secure supply on a large scale. Many are invented by startups or universities, which face all the typical issues with becoming mainstream, such as obtaining finance to commercialise.

“There’s a huge amount of work going into figuring out which natural polymers have the best properties, including the shelf life that industry expects for their core product,” says Claire Hae-Min Gusko, co-founder of Hamburg-based biomaterials company One • five (pronounced one point five).

The German company aims to bridge the gap between the startups and research institutes developing innovative solutions and corporations looking for suppliers of plastic-free packaging by forming partnerships where corporations can test early prototypes in real life.

Scotland-based Cullen makes moulded pulp cartons from byproducts of its corrugate packaging business. Cullen/Handout via Reuters Acquire Licensing Rights

“The difficulty with scaling up is usually reflected in cost - the less scale there is, the more expensive the material usually is,” Hae-Min Gusko explains: “These are relatively young technologies, if you compare how much more research and time has gone into the traditional petro-plastics.”

While traditional plastic has a well-known chemical structure that is easy to understand many features of biomaterials are far from understood, she points out. The chitin from a seashell has a different chemical structure from that from fungi. “If you’re trying to create the same film every single time, but your biomaterial is organic, it will have slight deviations, which makes production more difficult to really perfect,” she says.

However, discovering something new about biomaterials is what makes working in this area exciting, Hae-Min Gusko says. “Every time you work with those materials, you’re pushing the boundaries and understanding something that somebody before you hasn’t.”

Cosmetics company Lush is considering expanding its use of cork to store products, following success with its cork pot, which was introduced in 2019 to hold its solid shampoo and soap bars. The cork is sourced from Portugal, where it is harvested without harming the tree, after which it regrows for a future harvest.

Cork forests sequester carbon, and benefit local wildlife, such as the Spanish black pig, explains Maria Feast from the Lush creative buying team. Lush worked with Portuguese firms Cork Connections and Ecointerventions on the cork pots, while the machines used to manufacture them were designed by its own engineers.

According to Feast, Lush is currently working on another plant-based packaging material which can be wild harvested in Ecuador. It is not yet signed off, so Feast cannot reveal details. “No-one is doing anything like this on the market,” she says.

Catherine Early is a freelance journalist specialising in the environment and sustainability. She writes for Business Green,China Dialogue and the ENDS Report, among others. She was a finalist in the Guardian’s International DevelopmentJournalism competition.

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