Unpacking the Complexity of Designing Paper Packaging
Thanks to the mass adoption of digital publications and e-books enabled by the rise of smartphones and social media, some have said that paper is dead. But due to the parallel rise in sustainability concerns among consumers, the material is living a second life, literally, in the form of paper packaging.
Consumer preference for companies making real sustainable change has resulted in many consumer packaged goods (CPG) brands transitioning toward more sustainable packaging options, such as paper packaging designs. In the fall of 2021, Jabil partnered with SIS International Research to field an online survey to 186 packaging decision-makers to learn their plans, challenges and opinions about sustainable packaging. There was representation from a wide range of industries, such as food and beverage, pet care, personal care, home care and industrials. Questions focused on sustainability progress and goals, as well as specific approaches to achieving sustainable packing.
Jabil's 2022 Sustainable Packaging Survey revealed that 68% of companies participating in the survey are working to implement paper-based packaging. Further, nearly half (49%) stated that their top sustainable packaging priority is implementing paper-based packaging.
The dynamic properties of paper material make it an excellent packaging choice for CPG companies. Transporting and protecting products using paper packaging is sustainable, reliable and cost-effective. Paper-based packaging material is heavily recycled, making it easily accessible. The composition of paper-based packaging is sturdy, yet lightweight, which offers greater versatility. Other advantages of using paper in packaging include cost, convenience and flexibility.
The Sustainability Benefits of Paper Packaging
It's easy to understand the appeal of using paper in packaging design. Paper is not a complex material. It's a simple renewable resource. As with other plant-based crops, it is widely recycled and renewable. In fact, paper is the most recycled material in North America according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which reported about 67% of paper and paperboard was recycled in 2018. Comparatively, the paper recycling rate in the European Union (EU) was 72% in 2019.
Paper production has a low carbon footprint, especially if the source material is made from recycled cardboard or newsprint, and does not require deforestation. Due to its simple construction, uncoated paper can also be easily deconstructed, making it an excellent material for recycling and reuse.
The end-of-life benefits of paper packaging are clear, as the EPA estimates paper can be recycled up to seven times for reuse. Plastic, on the other hand, can only be recycled mechanically once or twice before being downcycled for use in textiles like clothing and rugs.
Many sustainability tactics that CPGs employ in the development of plastic or aluminum packaging are invisible to the average consumer. Making packages from a single material (for recyclability) lightweighting, and using post-consumer recycled (PCR) materials are critically important improvements. But they don't resonate with consumers without extensive messaging and education on the benefits of these modifications.
Paper packaging — particularly that which uses recycled materials — provides immediate sustainability cues on-shelf and a brand equity boost for companies leading the way in sustainable packaging. For example, Seventh Generation is a leading supplier of household cleaners and paper goods. They have established themselves as a leader both in plant-based products and packaging that is source-reduced and has as much PCR content as possible.
Brands looking to switch to paper have a number of questions they must consider before beginning the design process. First, which type of paper-based packaging fits their product best?
Traditional Paperboard Packaging vs. Hybrid Molded Fiber Packaging
Traditional paperboard packaging can't hold liquids on its own. To accomplish this, different types of coatings are needed. The coating repels liquid and separates it from the fiber packaging. But adding these coatings limits the recyclability of the container. Depending on the product inside, reclosability is also challenging with paperboard packages.
Hybrid molded fiber packaging maintains recyclability by physically separating paper and plastic components so they can perform different tasks. The outer fiber shell provides the structural support that defines the shape of the package for optimal aesthetics and ergonomics, while the thin inner plastic liner contains and protects the product and provides features for standard closures.
Maximize Benefits Without Sacrificing Other Areas of Sustainability
At this point, using some plastics within paper packaging is necessary to make paper packaging functional for liquids. However, there are ways to maximize the sustainability benefits of paper without compromising other areas.
Focus on the Consumer Recycling Experience
Consider designing paper packaging in a way that allows the plastic and paper components to be separated and recycled, composted, or thrown away according to the specific needs of the material. One way to do this is by reducing the use of coatings, adhesives, or other materials that will render the paper unrecyclable.
Control the Recycling Stream
By developing a proprietary source of recycled material, CPGs can take ownership of their supply chain by using exclusively post-consumer recycled paper and plastic in their packaging. Jabil's Ecologic technology platform offers CPG brands and retailers the ability to leverage their own recycled packaging in the creation of new products — bringing the circular economy closer to reality
Consider New Shapes
Traditionally, paper packaging has only been folded in a few rectangular ways which don't function quite as well as cylindrical bottles or tubs. Today, CPG brands can mold paper into a wide range of packaging formats and solve nearly every packaging need with their own paper supply and lightweight plastic liners. The thoughtful combination of paper and plastic can create everything from personal care pump bottles and cosmetics jars to home care spray bottles and food tubs.
Five Factors That Affect Paper Packaging Design
While numerous products can be held within molded fiber packages, there are limitations to paper that must be considered within the packaging design.
1. Fiber has Different Properties Than Plastic
Paper can be a strong material, however it can be weaker in many ways compared to plastics. When designing paper packaging, you must consider top load and lateral forces that dictate the necessary strength of the container. Another challenge is that recycled materials behave differently than virgin materials. The original source of the recycled paper and how many times it's been recycled also affect the fiber's chemistry. When fiber slurry is formed in a mold, extra strength may be needed in other parts of the mold to provide the proper structure.
Fiber also has virtually no barrier properties. Standard chemicals are added to molded fiber to create some moisture resistance and strength. Thin inner plastic liners made from PET or HDPE provide the necessary barrier for containing liquids.
2. High Variability of Recycled Material
Molding any recycled material is challenging. The number of times a material is recycled affects its chemistry and properties.
Cardboard can do many jobs before it is recycled, meaning source material has various chemistry and fiber lengths. These factors must be considered when making the fiber slurry for paper packaging, as they can affect processing and downstream performance.
3. Molding Process Improvements
The starting point of molded fiber packaging begins with creating a slurry of broken-down paper materials that contains about 99.5% water. The slurry then goes through various processes and filtering to ensure the fibers are adequately distributed into the molds.
The slurry is thermoformed into the shape of the outer shells, which are then heated and pressed to reduce the water content. This process will be incrementally improved and expedited in the coming years.
4. Fiber Molding Limitations
Consider structure limitations when designing packaging made from molded fiber — for example, draft angles and the material's formation into your desired shape. Paper needs a little more draft than plastics. Fiber lays onto the tool in different ways depending on the angle, which affects the strength properties of the product. Often, molded fiber parts are shaped and then trimmed before assembly — meaning the "untrimmed" form must be considered along with the final, assembled form.
5. Downstream Automation and Transformation
Hybrid paper packaging introduces new elements in terms of automation and filling. While the goal is to behave similarly to rigid plastic containers during filling, there are significant assembly considerations. For example, the Eco.Bottle is comprised of two outer parts made of molded fiber and one inner plastic liner to provide barrier properties. The outer parts require a precise die-cutting process, and onsite custom assembly could be employed to gain the full carbon footprint benefit of shipping nested components rather than complete packages.
Could Hybrid Paper Packaging Be CPG Brands' Sustainable Solution?
With increased consumer demand and a regulatory push for sustainable products and packaging, CPGs must move toward sustainable practices and unique solutions like hybrid paper packaging. These strategies will help CPGs meet their goals of plastic reduction, lower carbon footprint and the use of recycled materials all while maintaining recyclability and resonating with end-consumers.
Jabil Packaging Solutions offers innovative, sustainable packaging options for virtually any consumer product. Our expertise and manufacturing space give us the tools to help brands design packaging for sustainability, source the appropriate material and ensure packages have an optimal end-of-life result.
Hybrid paper packaging technology provides structural stability and protection of the inside product. The package design allows the molded fiber outer shell and the inner plastic liner to remain recyclable in their own streams. This technology can help CPG brands reduce consumer reliance on single-use plastics and move toward a more sustainable future and happier planet.
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Insights from over 180 packaging decision-makers at global enterprises on their sustainable packaging goals, initiatives and challenges.