Paper bottles: promising or PR puff?

Drinks brands are desperately seeking alternatives to the plastic and glass they use for bottles, and they’ve landed on paper. But is it a viable option, asks David Burrows.

Drum rolls and drams. It was back in 2020 that Diageo unveiled a “100% plastic-free paper-based spirits bottle” for its Johnnie Walker whisky and promised to have it on shelves and behind bars a year later. As we approach 2023 there is still no sign of it. In fact, the company’s 2022 annual report didn’t even mention these bottles at all (the year previously the chairman mentioned them specifically in his statement). A spokesperson for Pulpex, the packaging company behind the new bottles, says the Johnnie Walker store in Edinburgh could be stocking the bottles next year.

What’s the tech? PepsiCo and Unilever are among the other companies involved in Diageo’s paper bottle project, which spawned the start-up Pulpex. The project has been testing several “non-plastic coatings” for the bottles but what these actually are is a bit of a mystery. Recycling companies await further details with baited breath. PepsiCo admitted recently that there is a “few years of work” left and it’ll be non-carbonated drinks that are piloted first.

Carlsberg’s better bottle. Carlsberg seems to have cracked the problem already. The brewer managed to get its wood fibre bottles into the hands of consumers in eight markets (including the UK) over the summer. Those attending festivals were left “surprised” by the “peculiar” experience when offered a bottle of cold beer that didn’t feel cold, a spokesperson tells Footprint. Feedback from the trials has been “positive” but rollout at scale won’t happen until 2025. “Identifying, integrating, and scaling new and groundbreaking materials takes time,” says the spokesperson. “In our pursuit of a fully bio-based and recyclable beer bottle, we never wanted to compromise on the bottle’s functionality or the quality of the product and consumer experience.” 

Paper chase. Carlsberg’s bottle has been made by Paboco, which also counts Coca-Cola and Pernod Ricard’s Absolute vodka division among its commercial corporate partners. The two start-ups – Paboco and Pulpex – are going head-to-head in the paper bottle race. However, there’s also FrugalPac, which makes bottles from two recycled paperboard shells that are formed around a thin plastic pouch. Lux Research sees space in the market for others to join in too. Paboco’s bottles have thin film barriers made from either recycled PET (polyethylene terephthalate) or PEF (polyethylene furanoate). Avid watchers of the packaging sector will know PEF as an innovation that has been promising much but delivering very little for years. However, the “100% plant-based and recyclable alternative to plastic” is “on track” to start appearing on shelves in Europe in 2024, according to commercial director Bart Langius. Avantium, a renewable chemistry company, also recently signed a deal to supply AmBev, part of AB Inbev, with PEF for soft drink bottles.

Bio-bottles for beer Carlsberg is clearly taken by the idea of using the bio-based alternative to PET – PEF was used to line the 8,000 paper bottles it has been using at festivals. The current bottle is roughly 55% fibre and 45% PEF, so would have to be fed into the carton recycling stream in the UK. Recycling experts Footprint consulted are far from convinced about the recyclability claims coming from those making these paper bottles (terminology in some of the marketing materials is fluid, with “fully recyclable” and “expected to be fully recyclable” seemingly interchangeable). Extended producer responsibility regulations, when they do finally arrive, should sharpen both minds and marketing as the price of unrecyclable packaging rises. Pulpex, Paboco and Frugal are trying different approaches and it’s not yet clear which one – if any – recyclers will prefer. Requiring people to separate the plastic is likely to be a no-no, while the likes of the Confederation of Paper Industries will want any plastic liners or coatings to account for no more than 10% of the content and be easily separated in mills. 

Carbon cut by paper. Replacing something that’s easily recycled, like glass or PET, with something that is trickier appears folly, but there is also the environmental footprint to consider. Brands point to life cycle assessments showing how paper has the potential to win among single-use materials and compete with reusable options. Carlsberg sent Footprint the results of LCAs it has conducted. These show the per hectolitre carbon impacts as follows: single-use glass (75kgCO2e), aluminium can (24kgCO2e), refillable glass bottle used 10 times (15kgCO2e) and refillable glass bottle used 15 times (12kgCO2e). The generation 2.0 fibre bottle currently weighs in at 50kgCO2e, falling to 22kgCO2e if production is scaled and powered 100% by wind. But the ambition is for the generation 3.0 bottle to “achieve the same low carbon footprint as the refillable glass bottle, which is currently the best-performing primary packaging when collected and reused in efficient systems”. By shaving the PEF barrier from its current 18g to 5g the footprint of the paper-PEF bottle falls to 11kgCO2e. 

Single-use v reuse. Before supporters of single-use models get carried away there is a caveat to these figures. In the assessments it was “assumed that all packaging types are sold in a market with an established and efficient deposit return scheme (DRS) [… and] that the end-of-life scenario is the same for all the packaging types where 90% are recycled, 8% are incinerated with energy recovery and 2% are littered or landfilled”. That doesn’t seem fair given that recycling of different materials varies widely. What’s more, achieving 90% is ambitious for any material: recycling rates for PET bottles, seen as a success story by industry, currently stand at around 50% in Europe and the upper limit may be only 75% (based on a 87% collection rate), according to recent analysis by Eunomia for Zero Waste Europe (in the US it’s just 23%). 

Perfecting paper. Some experts see these paper bottles as a marketing solution rather than a true sustainability solution. Millions are being invested in single-use alternatives which are taking years to perfect. Scrutiny of the environmental impact of paper is also intensifying. Plastic also has its problems, and so too glass which is heavy and carries high emissions when it is moved around. But even Carlsberg can’t hide the fact that a glass bottle which is refilled and reused still offers the most sustainable solution for its beers – and will do for many years to come. Doesn’t that make it the most sensible option to pursue?

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