What are the latest technological innovations to hit the paper bottle market? While there remains ample room for improvement, notably in terms of barrier solutions, the first forays into the field have been promising with paper being used for cosmetics, wine and even whisky.
What might have seemed like science fiction just two years ago is in the process of becoming reality: the first paper-based bottles have been developed for the beverage and beauty sectors. And this looks to be just the beginning.
While traditional packaging materials like plastic, glass and metal are sometimes criticized for their environmental impact, paper has maintained a positive image, mostly because it is derived from renewable, recyclable, and biodegradable resources. The challenge remains, however, to adapt paper to a new use: to create a hollow body that protects its contents and serves as a barrier to humidity, grease, and gas as well as a solid material. This R&D challenge has inspired the paper and packaging sectors, as well as brands.
In 2015, Danish brewer Carlsberg was the first company to initiate a project with researchers from EcoXpac, a research company specialized in paper bottles. The project culminated in 2019 with the creation of Paboco—The Paper Bottle Community, a joint-venture with Swedish paper manufacturer BillerudKorsnäs and plastic packaging manufacturer Alpla. Other brands have partnered on the project: Coca-Cola, L’Oréal, and Absolut (Pernod Ricard) form what is called the Pioneer Community, which supports innovation through experience sharing.
Another consortium, led by spirits group Diageo and venture capital company Pilot Lite, launched Pulpex in the UK in 2020. Unilever and PepsiCo have also joined the effort and others are sure to follow. These two leading projects have given the emerging paper bottle market a significant boost.
Several other players are also present, each with its own technology, making for a truly competitive environment. The main difficulty researchers face is making paper impermeable. No plant-based fibers naturally feature this characteristic; they have to be coated or laminated with plastic or other synthetic ingredients that have become a source of growing unease. Two processes applicable to bottles stand out: injecting a thin layer of plastic inside the packaging, or sprayting a plant- or mineral-derived substance.
“Any addition of plastic disrupts the paper recycling process, which does not do well with coated papers,” emphasizes Gilles Swyngedauw, Vice President of Marketing, Innovation & Sustainability at Albéa, the company behind the first flexible cardboard tube. “We can reduce the portion of plastic, but I don’t think we’ll see 100% paper packaging within the next five years. You also have to take into consideration stoppers and screw tops, which can’t be made with paper. Creating them in wood would imply that a collection and sorting system exists for recycling, which is not the case today.”
Although a 100% cellulose, 100% barrier is still far from reality, it’s the subject of ongoing research. In France, the Centre Technique du Papier has developed several processes to this effect: chromatogénie, which consists of pulverizing a paper surface with a kind of vegetable oil whose molecules graft themselves to the paper; 3D spray, which is used on three-dimensional objects rather than flat sheets of paper; wet lamination of microfibrillated cellulose; and ultrasonic welding that forgoes the need for glue.
Additive manufacturing could also very well play a role in the future development of the paper bottle—allowing researchers to have a go at making paper as transparent as glass. Suffice to say, there are many possibilities on the horizon and the luxury sector seems interested enough to try to add its own story to this new chapter in the history of packaging.
Pulpex: zero PET
Diageo chose its Johnnie Walker whisky to inaugurate the paper bottle produced by Pulpex, the company it recently founded in partnership with investment fund Pilot Lite. It’s not a layer of plastic that makes this bottle waterproof, and the company is proud to say that it doesn’t contain PET. The bottle is molded in a single piece from paper pulp, then dried and hardened in a microwave, before receiving a pulverizing surface treatment on the inside. Pulpex won’t divulge the coating’s secret recipe, but confirms that it is of food grade quality. The packaging could be recyled using the standard process and would be biodegradable in nature. Its carbon footprint would be 30% less than that of a bottle made of PET and 90% less than one made of glass. Subsequent versions are being studied for use with carbonized and hot beverages. Pulpex plans to produce more than 750 million bottles per year for its portfolio of clients.
Frugalpac: aiming for local production
Frugalpac, an English manufacturer of cardboard cups, is diversifying its offer with a bottle for wine and spirits featuring a paper envelope and a pouch made of a plastic complex, which can be separated for recycling. The paper contains 94% recycled fibers, while the complex, which varies depending on its contents, includes a majority of polypropylene and a small amount of aluminum to guarantee a shelf life of 12 months. The bottle weighs just 83 grams — five times less than a glass bottle. Some 84% is paper and the remaining 16% the pouch. The solution is manufactured in a partner factory in England, but Frugalpac’s strategy is to localize production by installing assembly machines close to the brand as a way to improve its carbon footprint. The first brand to use the Frugal Bottle, Italian vineyard Cantina Goccia, says it is very satisfied with sales and will use the solution with other product references. According to a study conducted in the UK by Survation, some 63% of wine drinkers would be in favor of this new type of bottle. Other launches are expected, including for spirits, such as a gin by Silent Pool Distillers, Japanese sakes, and American whiskies.
Paboco: design imperative
Absolut Vodka is the leading premium reference for Paboco’s paper bottle. The spirit’s parent company, Pernod Ricard, tested 2,000 bottles in the UK and in Sweden in 2021. Its outer layer is 57% paper, and the interior layer is 43% recycled PET, two materials that can be hand separated. Paboco intends to improve future versions by gradually eliminating plastic, including in the stoppers, and eventually develop a bio-sourced barrier. The packaging is distinctive for its virgin-fiber paper, which is resistant enough to accommodate being molded into various forms and strong textures; digital embellishments (printed with water-based inks); and laser etching. In terms of functionality, it also resists the pressure of CO2 in carbonated beverages, as Coca-Cola can attest.
Ecologic Brands – Jabil: a pioneering solution
Recently acquired by Jabil Packaging Solutions, American company Ecologic Brands has been working for the last 10 years on a bottle comprising a recycled cardboard shell and a detachable, recyclable pouch in 80% PCR polyethylene, but a PET version is in development. The solution uses 70% less plastic than bottles made exclusively of plastic. Assembly takes places in the company’s California factory, but there are plans to implant industrial tools worldwide to bring the solution closer to clients. A familiar name in the detergent sector, the packaging was adopted in 2018 by Seed Phytonutrients, a cosmetic start-up supported by L’Oréal.
Albéa: recycling objectives
L’Oréal was the first brand to adopt Albéa’s cardboard-based tube, first for La Roche-Posay’s sunscreen lotion, then for a Garnier Bio skin treatment. A product of the Greenleaf all-plastic lamination process for toothpaste, the packaging combines an interior plastic film with a virgin FSC-certified cardboard, itself protected by a thin outer layer of plastic to withstand showers and the beach. The proportion of cardboard was increased between launches to reach nearly half the total weight, including the plastic stopper, in the second version. This latest tube was designed to integrate the food carton recycling process, which is well-organized in Europe. It was also designed to avoid being mistaken by the automatic sorting machines for a plastic tube or a cardboard box.
This article was first published in the spring issue of our sister publication Formes de Luxe.