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Exploring Paper Packaging as a Sustainable Solution: Innovations and Pros & Cons

In this episode, learn about real-world examples of brands adopting paper packaging solutions and uncover innovative advancements such as recyclable coatings, molded pulp packaging and paper-based foam.


Welcome to Sustainable Packaging Explained — your guide to sustainable materials, methods, and package design, produced by the Emerging Brands Alliance in conjunction with Packaging World.

Today we'll be focusing on paper as a packaging material. Paper is made by mechanically or chemically breaking down wood fibers, mixing them with water, and then pressing and drying the resulting pulp to form thin sheets. Paper can also be made from cotton, hemp, bamboo, sugarcane, recycled paper, and agricultural residues like straw.

Paper has long been a popular packaging material - it is a versatile and renewable resource, and it is often perceived as being more sustainable, although that is not always the case.

In its original state, paper is biodegradable and recyclable. It decomposes naturally, reducing waste in landfills and minimizing its environmental impact. However, paper that is coated or laminated for packaging may not be easily recyclable or biodegradable. These coatings can prevent the paper from breaking down or interfere with the recycling process. Examples of such packaging include some types of coffee cups, take-out containers, and certain food packaging. However, efforts are underway to develop solutions for the recycling of coated or laminated paper packaging, as well as the creation of recyclable paper coatings.

A recent report from Future Market Insights estimates that the global paper packaging market will be worth $3.8 billion dollars by the end of 2023—rising to $5.7 billion by the end of 2033, and brands large and small are embracing paper as a packaging material. Packaging World recently reported that Quilted Northern toilet paper has launched paper packaging for the bestselling packs of its Ultra Soft & Strong line, making it the first national toilet paper brand to offer recyclable paper packaging in major retailers. The paper packaging is produced using a virgin fiber that incorporates some adhesive coatings, but those coatings do not affect the recyclability profile.

Chocolate start-up nucao packages its products exclusively in paper, using a new barrier paper that meets the demand for sustainable primary packaging for the food industry. According to Packaging World’s Matt Reynolds, “Making this switch enables nucao to meet a key consumer demand for greater sustainability and to lead the way in the chocolate market with how it chooses to package its products.” The paper can be recycled and scores a rating of 19 out of a possible 20 points from the environment service provider Interzero.”

Consumer demand for sustainable packaging has many brands implementing paper packaging for their products. For instance, the outdoor clothing company Patagonia uses corrugate that is left in its natural state with minimal printing for its base layer packaging. Brush with Bamboo, the sustainable lifestyle brand, uses bamboo-based packaging for their eco-friendly toothbrushes.

Innovations such as molded pulp packaging has gained popularity as a sustainable alternative. Made from recycled paper, it protects fragile items such as electronics or glassware. Another innovation is paper-based foam, which offers cushioning and insulation properties while being recyclable and compostable.

There are other paper packaging innovations that are picking up steam, such as a French pilot program for paper-based, home-compostable coffee capsule by Nestlé, and molded pulp paper bottles. Pulpex, a sustainable packaging technology company, is making PET-free paper bottles that are curbside-recyclable with no new recycling infrastructure required, and Packaging World reports that Heinz Ketchup is partnering with Pulpex to develop a paper-based sauce bottle.

Florida-based Distillery 98 has a paper-based bottle for its small-batch, locally sourced Half Shell Vodka that is created by Frugalpac. The components can be separated after use and the paperboard can be widely recycled, while the multilayer pouch can be recycled in some regions. Even though the bottle components may not all be recyclable, this lightweight bottle is said to create six times less carbon emissions during production and shipping—even when transported long distances.

While paper offers certain advantages, it also presents some challenges. When compared to materials like plastic or metal, paper may be less durable and provide less protection for certain products, and as it is susceptible to moisture and water damage, its use in certain applications or environments may be limited or require coatings that may affect recyclability.

Paper packaging offers the benefits of recyclability, biodegradability, and versatility, but, as always, it is best to perform a life-cycle analysis of a product to determine if paper packaging would be a viable option for your situation.

Thanks for watching and be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel for more videos on packaging and scaling operations. And join us at the Emerging Brands Alliance for year-round resources to grow your brand.


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