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Packaging for the long haul: A closer look at the viability of paper-based alternatives

By Charles Haverfield, Packaging Executive for US Packaging & Wrapping

Nestle recently announced a packaging makeover for one of its most recognizable products, KitKat. In Australia, the sweet treat will be trialled with recyclable paper wrappers as part of the company’s pledge to slash the use of virgin plastics by a third by 2025.

I explore whether paper-based alternatives are the best long-term solution over traditional plastic packaging for food products.

Weighing up costs

Packaging design and materials will inevitably be dominated by cost, with plastic remaining the most popular choice for many brands thanks to its durability, versatility and cost-effectiveness.

However, plastic is one of the biggest contributors to the global waste problem. The OECD predicts the amount of plastic waste produced globally is projected to triple to 1,231 million tonnes by 2060.

As a result, the government has set new regulations to tackle plastic packaging waste, such as the Plastic Packaging Tax, with brands facing costly fines should they not adhere to the new rules.

And with research finding 86 percent of under 45s are willing to pay more for sustainably packaged products, choosing paper-based packaging alternatives could not only avoid

Balanced branding

For most consumers, the packaging is the first interaction with a brand’s product and can make or break a sale. Manufacturers will therefore have to carefully consider how to avoid compromising brand identity when changing packaging.

Take Nestle as an example. The brand came under fire last year for changing the packaging for one of its most iconic and beloved chocolates, Quality Street. Nestle swapped its dual aluminium foil and cellulose to vegetable-based recyclable paper wrappers.

Other brands outside of the food packaging industry have seen greater success, such as L’Oreal developing a cardboard tube for La Roche-Posay’s Anthelios sunscreen.

However, it may be some time before we see 100 percent paper-based packaging and longer yet before this translates widespread across the beauty and food packaging industries.

Preserving products

Despite paper food packaging seeming like the more environmentally friendly option for its biodegradable properties, its poor barrier properties make food products more susceptible to light, oxygen and microbial degradation.

Food packaging manufacturers will therefore need to consider how paper-based alternatives can realistically match plastic packaging for food preservation without impacting its sustainable credentials.

Emerging technologies, such as water-based dispersion coatings, are hoping to provide improved barrier solutions for paper packaging. Unlike traditional plastic, aluminium or chemical coatings, dispersion coatings allow paper packaging to be fully recycled without separation processes while providing resistance to liquid and grease.