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Is Moulded Pulp the Answer to Circular Economy?

PackTech Ventures - Newsletter #2 - December 2022

While COP 27 was taking place, the major Consumer Goods companies announced environmentally appropriate novelties from the perspective of their packaging: last month began with the announcement of the launch of Lenor softener, by Procter&Gamble, in a paper bottle produced by the packaging company Paboco. As reported by Packaging News portal, the pilot of this launch will be carried out in partnership with the Albert Heijn supermarket chain in Netherlands, which will make 120,000 bottles available for sale in early 2023. The pilot sale will help to offer insights into the functionality of a “non-plastic” bottle for liquid laundry products, getting critical feedback from the product in use. However, to avoid liquid leakage and fragrance loss, this first-generation bottle has an inner layer of recycled plastic. That is: despite using FSC-certified paper fibers, it is not 100% made up of paper. The question that remains, once again, is: how will the post-consumption of this package be? Once it has 2 layers united in the base structure of the package, can they be separated and/or recycled?

After Procter&Gamble, another company made an important announcement: Nestlé, in partnership with the giant Huhtamaki, launched paper capsules for the coffee line Dolce Gusto Neo Pods (in Brazil) and Nespresso (in France and Switzerland), to be launched also in early 2023. Although aluminum capsules are still the best option from the point of view of recyclability, the difficulty in separating used coffee grounds and packaging makes this unfeasible in practice, and the same occurs with brands that use plastic polypropylene capsules. Hence the search for a material that could be disposed of as organic material, without major environmental impacts. Huhtamaki's proprietary high-precision technology for flat molded fibers turns wood pulp fibers into high-performance packaging solutions. The paper-based coffee capsules are made from wood fiber, sourced from responsibly managed European forests. They have been independently certified by TÜV Rheinland as compostable at home, and compostable under food waste collection schemes. In this case, as it is a dry input (coffee powder), the application of this type of packaging is favored.

Logically, Procter&Gamble and Nestlé took advantage of the date to draw attention to their solutions. However, other companies have also previously presented similar solutions, including Kraft Heinz and Diageo, which produce, respectively, the ketchup bottle and paper whiskey bottle, with Pulpex, in the United Kingdom. Diageo formed a consortium with PepsiCo and Unilever to scale the adoption of Pulpex solutions. Pulpex, in turn, to increase its production capacity and meet the demand of this consortium, established a partnership with the Finnish company Stora Enso in 2021, aiming to have a high-speed production line operating this year.

Moulded pulp technology is a great opportunity to promote circularity; if paper fibers from reforestation are used, they also help to sequester carbon from the atmosphere. However, as illustrated in the case of Procter&Gamble and Nestlé, the use of “100% paper” packaging depends on the nature of the input: if dry (e.g. solid or powder), it is easy to adopt; if pasty or liquid, an additional layer is necessary to prevent the migration of liquids to the external surface of the package, damaging and making the product unusable for consumption. So the adoption of the technology and the achievement of circularity are dependent on what's inside the package. Thus, simply ignoring and condemning the use of plastic is not the way forward, but part of the solution for reducing the environmental impact indeed. It is necessary to rethink the design of plastic solutions, as well as stimulate recycling and the Post-Consumer Plastic Waste (PCR) market.

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