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Live from Smithers' Sustainability in Packaging US: Paper Cap/Closures Soon to be a Reality?

It's unusual for PW to cover pre-commercialized projects. But at Smithers' Sustainability in Packaging US event today in Chicago, we saw a paper-based beverage cap application that's closer to in-market than we'd have thought.

A poly liner (2-4%) will still be used as the project scales, using low-hanging fruit functionality as the project scales.
A poly liner (2-4%) will still be used as the project scales, using low-hanging fruit functionality as the project scales.

Blue Ocean Closures, a Swedish startup backed by Austria’s ALPLA Group and American Glatfelter, seeks to disrupt the beverage, specialty food, and cosmetics packaging markets by introducing a high-end, molded fiber bottle or closure/screw cap/screw lid that’s both recyclable and ocean biodegradable.

Rightly or wrongly, plastics of all stripes have landed between many brands’ crosshairs, and plastic packaging reduction is a part of many CPG corporate sustainability goals for 2025, 2030, and beyond. 

“We are helping brand owners reduce plastic, to achieve their goals to reduce plastic,” Lars Sandberg, CEO, said in a session attended by PW. “And that, of course, makes it a good business opportunity. We want to achieve a big impact, but we also want to inspire others.”

The million-dollar (potentially billion-dollar) question is the company’s approach to barrier properties, considering the closure is destined for liquid or viscous product applications. Recognizing that it’s not the perfect approach, rather the “low-hanging-fruit” approach that will advance the concept and situate it for a better solution in the future, the company has opted for a thin top-seal plastic liner, the same that’s used in metal closures.

“That of course could be a biodegradable PHA or PHP [bio-derived polyhyroxyalkanoates or polyhydroxybutyrate], or it could be the liner that is needed to pack certain products. It just gives us the freedom to move to market.”

The low-hanging-fruit approach extends to the closure itself, which is made of high quality, readily available virgin fiber instead of recycled, shorter-strand fiber. But the virgin fiber comes from FSC-certified sources, and the company seeks to potentially move into recycled fiber at some point. Sandberg said to expect further innovation as it the company grows. But at the moment, the start-up seeks to remove as much complexity from the system as possible to begin to scale around its core concept. As he sees it, there are three keys to the success of the overall concept, and shortening the time-to-market.

“We are producing a starting material on really big scale, and this is a first key point of our [capability] to grow,” Sandberg said. “We are producing this starting material in existing infrastructure, so that we can achieve not only single tons, but tens of thousands of tons of material. This material is ours, and it holds very special features. And we are then converting it in existing machines. We're not building a new type of machine line. We are not necessarily bringing out new lines and building out the capacity to fill new lines. We are using basic, existing machinery to convert our material. But with very specific tools, and tools are a second key.

“Finally, it's one thing to be able to make a material, and to be able to form it into a closure,” he concludes. “It's a totally different thing to be able to make a material, form it into a closure, and then have that recyclable as paper.”

The unique set of cross-functional expertise needed to put together a viable fiber-cap supply chain—from forestry science to paper physics to cap torquing physics to standards and food safety regulations—doesn’t currently exist anywhere in the marketplace, according to Sandberg.

“A big part of us going to market is the network of players that we have lined up around us,” he said. “It’s maybe something closer to a business model innovation to a product innovation.”Sandberg claims the project to be as much of a business model innovation as a product one.Sandberg claims the project to be as much of a business model innovation as a product one.

As questions were fielded after the presentation, an important one came from event moderator Sameer Talsania Senior Manager, External Innovation at Pepsico. Would these caps be able to run on existing high-speed capping infrastructure? Not an unfair question, coming from a beverage giant. 

"To be honest, we haven't done so much testing, but what we are trying to do is a drop-in solution, so that we will pack the closures in the same way as they are packed today. We ship them in the same way, and they will have about the same weight and the same structure," Sandberg responded. "What might be different is small details on the outside design, small variations in weight, we might be a couple of percentage heavier. But in short, we are really aiming for a drop-in solution that way."

One brand-owner this editor spoke to on background was skeptical of this claim, but was impressed by the potential of the tech regardless, and sees molded paper fiber as a serious growth category overall. 

While no commercialized projects using Blue Ocean Closures are in-market yet, the company is beta testing with a confidential branded spirits manufacturer. The closure supplier expects to be able to reveal the project as in-market with its partner soon, perhaps in a month. Packaging World is hoping to cover this commercialized project when it’s officially launched, so stay tuned. PW

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