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The Race to Market Is on For Eco-Friendly Paper-Based Bottles

As companies worldwide strive to demonstrate their sustainability credentials for an increasingly demanding base of consumers, a race is underway among beverage makers and packaging companies to be the first to sell products in paper bottles.


At last count, some 80 billion plastic bottles are manufactured annually (source: Paper Bottle Company), and that’s not counting glass bottles and cans. Governments, manufacturers and consumers all seem united in the quest to ensure single-use packaging is made from sustainable resources and - more importantly - do not harm the environment when they are discarded.


Among the furthest progressed along the trail - at least publicly - is the world’s largest beverage company, Coca-Cola, which last month revealed its latest step towards a 100-per-cent paper bottle.


Other brands including Carlsberg and Johnnie Walker have revealed prototypes, although all share one thing for now - while predominantly paper (or cardboard) the solutions still rely on plastic screw caps to ensure airtightness, and plastic lining to prevent leakage or absorption into the paper.

Carlsberg Paper Beer Bottle - Saladplate Community InspirationCarlsberg Paper Beer Bottle - Saladplate Community Inspiration
Carlsberg Paper Beer Bottle

The final step in producing 100-per-cent paper bottles - which because of their biodegradability are for now the holy grail of convenient beverage packaging - may be the hardest, but the commitment is there and several companies are already marketing an intermediate solution, like Kentucky innovator Paper Water Bottle Company.


The result of this fast-paced technological advancement will impact many business sectors, from the HoReCa industry through to supermarkets and convenience stores. To meet customer expectations, expect to see paper-based bottles of beers, soft drinks, juices and RTDs in hotel mini bars, vending machines, buffets, workplaces, canteens and aeroplanes.


“Our vision is to create a paper bottle that can be recycled like any other type of paper, and this prototype is the first step on the way to achieving this,” said Stijn Franssen, EMEA R&D packaging innovation manager at Coca-Cola when he unveiled the new Coke ‘bottle’ last month.


“A paper bottle opens up a whole new world of packaging possibilities, and we are convinced that paper packaging has a role to play in the future.”

Coca Cola Paper Bottle - Saladplate Community InspirationCoca Cola Paper Bottle - Saladplate Community Inspiration
Coca Cola Paper Bottle

For now, Coke’s bottle has a plastic closure and plastic film lining, made from 100-per-cent recycled plastic that can be recycled again after use. “But our vision is to create a paper bottle that can be recycled like any paper. The next step is to find a solution to create a bottle without the plastic liner,” Franssen said.


He believes that future technological solutions will help achieve the vision of a paper bottle that’s recyclable as paper, but the paper packaging must also meet the same safety and quality standards as other forms of packaging.


“This is all part of our journey to find the most sustainable packaging solutions for people to enjoy our drinks in a way that is right for them, and that is right for our planet,” he added.

Consortium approach


Coke’s archrival PepsiCo is also working on paper bottles, teaming up with Unilever and Diageo (parent of Johnnie Walker, Smirnoff and Guinness) and other FMCG companies in a consortium working with venture management company Pilot Lite. 

Johnnie Walker Paper Bottle - Saladplate Community InspirationJohnnie Walker Paper Bottle - Saladplate Community Inspiration
Johnnie Walker Paper Bottle

 Diageo’s first paper bottle, made by Pulpex Ltd, will debut with Johnnie Walker liverie early next year, in what the drinks company is billing as a world first.


“We are constantly striving to push the boundaries within sustainable packaging and this bottle has the potential to be truly ground-breaking,” said Ewan Andrew, chief sustainability officer, Diageo PLC. Unlike Coke’s, the consortium’s bottle is 100-per-cent plastic-free. It is made entirely from sustainably sourced wood and is 100-per-cent recyclable using existing processes.

Unilever’s chief R&D officer Richard Slater said the Anglo-Dutch company believes in reducing plastic waste through innovation and collaboration.


“We are going to halve our use of virgin plastic at Unilever, reducing our use of plastic packaging by more than 100,000 tonnes in the next five years. Joining forces to develop and test paper bottles is an incredibly exciting step forward.”


Simon Lowden, chief sustainability officer at PepsiCo, said the Pulpex consortium is well-positioned to deliver sustainable packaging at scale and across industries, having impact beyond what any organisation could achieve alone. We’re proud to be a part of it.”


Carlsberg Commitment


Brewer Carlsberg made a commitment to produce the world’s first “paper bottle” for beer in October last year, but at this point it is hard to pick which manufacturer will win the race.


Like the other projects, Carlsberg's biggest challenge is creating an environmentally friendly barrier film inside the bottle. Carlsberg has made two prototypes of its Green Fibre Bottle, both using sustainably sourced wood fibres with an inner barrier to allow the bottles to contain beer. One prototype uses a thin recycled PET polymer film barrier, and the other a bio-based PEF polymer film barrier. These prototypes will be used to test the barrier technology as Carlsberg seeks to provide a 100-per-cent bio-based bottle without polymers.


“Innovation takes time,” explained Myriam Shingleton, VP of group development at Carlsberg Group, at the time of the prototypes’ unveiling.


“While we are not completely there yet, the two prototypes are an important step towards realising our ultimate ambition of bringing this breakthrough to market. We will continue to collaborate with leading experts in order to overcome remaining technical challenges, just as we did with our plastic-reducing Snap Pack,”


Carlsberg has been working on its paper-bottle concept for five years with EcoXpac, a packaging company called BillerudKorsnäs and post-doctoral researchers from the Technical University of Denmark. It is supported by Innovation Fund Denmark and the project resulted in setting up a new paper bottle business called Paboco.


Coca-Cola, cosmetics giant L’Oreal and vodka producer The Absolut Company have joined Carlsberg in Paboco, although it is not clear if Coke’s prototype out last month is directly form this initiative or another.


Fighting ‘Trash in The Making’


Kentucky-based Paper Water Bottle company is an independent business with a sustainability agenda at its core which began - according to its website - “as a child’s innocent observation that all packaging is ‘trash in the making’ and has since grown into a deep, socially-conscious consumer mega-trend”. “We committed ourselves to find a better way.”

Paper bottle - Saladplate Community InspirationPaper bottle - Saladplate Community Inspiration

Currently, Paper Water Bottle products - made from renewable bamboo pulp and bagasse (sugar cane pulp), Paper Water Bottle products are 100-per-cent recyclable, 98-per-cent landfill biodegradable and 65-per-cent compostable. The goal is 100 per cent on all counts.


The company sells standard 500ml paper bottles for custom labelling, but has a design team which can create paper-based solutions for liquids (including beverages), consumer packaged goods, food and industrial packaging.


Paper Water Bottle says its bottles last a year on shelf, provided they are kept dry. They can be cooled on ice for a short period of time yet melting ice will eventually soften the pulp’s outer shell so the company recommends using ice packs or refrigeration to keep drinks cool so there is little or no actual liquid contact with the exterior.


The race to be the first major brand to sell drinks in all-paper bottles is well underway and while there is no clear winner just yet with the promise of global scale, the depth and breadth of companies signing onto the concept suggest one thing is for sure: there is no doubt paper bottles will become a mainstream solution in the battle to reduce waste. The only question is when that will happen. 

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