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Perils of plastic: why paper, prawns and plants may hold the answer

Oct 4, 2018 | Consumer, Market Research, Packaging, Packaging Research and Analysis, Plastic Packaging

Perils of plastic: why paper, prawns and plants may hold the answer

Here’s your starter for ten: what do paper, prawns, fungi and sugarcane have in common? Answer, and this may surprise you: they are all being put forward as credible alternatives to plastic.

In this post Blue Planet II world – the TV documentary which proved such a watershed in our attitude towards plastic, by showing the devastating effect it is having on our world – the race really is on to find cost-effective, efficient and viable alternatives.

Indeed, as the BBC points out, nearly all plastic ever produced – some 79% – still exists in some form or another.

Not a day goes by, it seems, without a new product being mooted, or a new piece of research being published into just how damaging plastic is.

At NOA, where we specialise in packaging market research and packaging industry analysis, and where the packaging sector is so dependent (at the moment at least) on plastic, we’re delighted every time an alternative is created, or a solution to the plastic mountain developed.

Here are some recent suggestions…

Are bamboo and sugar cane the new plastic?

A new pizza box – called Pizza Round – has been created by WorldCentric. It’s a 100% tree-free, plant-based, compostable pizza container for pizza takeout/delivery restaurants and is made from 80% sugarcane and 20% bamboo.

Of course, on the whole pizza boxes are made of carton rather than plastic, but this sounds like a sustainable alternative.

Or how about fungi?

The story of fungi is an interesting one, because this would by no means be a straightforward swap.

Plastic car parts, synthetic rubber and Lego can be made using itaconic acid derived from a particular type of fungus. Products made from certain fungi can be used as replacements for polystyrene foam, leather and building materials.

Fungi also hold promise for breaking down plastics over a period of just a few weeks rather than  many years and for then helping generate new types of biofuels.

However, there is a catch because fungi contain damaging crop pathogens which can devastate trees, crops and other plants across the world, and prove fatal to animals such as amphibians.

Handle with care, is the message here.

And what about paper?

We have to declare an interest here. We work alongside the paper packaging industry, investigating packaging market trends, so paper-based alternatives to plastic particularly excite us.

Beauty product giant L’Oréal has recently launched an eco-beauty range. The contents are all very environmentally friendly, but it is the packaging that is innovative. The outer card is recycled, recyclable, compostable, glue-free and water-resistant. The inner lining is made with recyclable plastic, and uses 60% less material than regular plastic bottles.

Still using plastic, but less of it, and recyclable; and the paper carton, similarly, is ‘green’ and won’t get soggy in the shower.

We have blogged before about the future of the paper packaging market, and the opportunity that the anti-plastic movement presents, but this is by no means straightforward. We believe it will take around ten years for corrugated to penetrate plastic volumes, mainly because expensive machinery that automatically packs product using plastic packaging solutions will only gradually be replaced by brand owners.

But we believe it can be done. Indeed, it is happening already. Canada-based Catalyst Paper has launched a range of lightweight virgin kraft paper which can be used for food packaging. As a virgin paper there are none of the concerns of food hygiene and safety which are associated with having recycled paper for wrapping food.

Here are two more examples from the food industry, where paper is replacing plastic.

Winner of Pro Carton’s Save the Planet Carton Excellence Award 2018 was Flatskin. This packaging material – suitable for fresh meat, fish and more – replaces the bottom plastic layer with paper. Overall, it uses 75% less plastic compared to a conventional tray or shrink packaging without any loss of product quality. Importantly, it is easy for the consumer to separate the recyclable plastic elements from the paper part – which, of course – can also be recycled.

Secondly, those polystyrene discs that pizzas sit on are increasingly being replaced by corrugated. In May last year, the Coop took the decision to swap plastic for corrugated discs on all its own brand pizzas products, creating 450 tonnes of cardboard for recycling every year.

Best of the rest

Among other alternatives being explored are seaweed water bubbles, from UK start-up Ooho: an edible (and by default, biodegradable) water bubble made of seaweed. The aim is “to provide the convenience of plastic bottles while limiting the environmental impact”.

Alternatives to plastic from milk protein, prawn and crab shells are being explored, and even an edible alternative to the plastic six pack ring for beers has been developed.

Finnish start-up Sulapac has created a biodegradable and microplastic free material made from renewable sources and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified wood.

The world is literally an oyster for anyone who wants to jump onto the anti-plastic bandwagon and come up with credible alternatives, and those alternatives surely must include sustainable paper, carton and cardboard.

At NOA, we specialise in quantitative and qualitative research for the packaging industry. To review our packaging market research or to subscribe to the latest NOA-PRISM report, please get in touch.