No one’s talking about the monumental change happening in the packaging industry.

Perhaps you’ve seen differences in product containers on store shelves? Or noticed your latest online purchase was shipped in a recyclable paper envelope?

The shift from plastic to sustainable materials is taking over the market.

And it’s affecting paper mills.

As companies and brands move away from plastic, remaining mills are converting their production lines to accommodate more profitable renewable materials.

But where does this leave the label industry? 

With label material grades on the decline, mills are choosing to meet the need for sustainable packaging instead. 

Will this spell trouble for label supply volumes that are still trying to meet demand?

A Shift in Infrastructure

If you’ve read anything recent about the paper industry, you’ll know the market has been fluctuating the last few years.

Paper mills have especially had a tough time: low profits, price increases, fluctuations in demand.

Now an idea that has been discussed for years is finally taking the market by storm: sustainability. 

With the global warming crisis bringing attention to the environment, consumers have become more aware of how products they buy are affecting the world they live in. 

To satisfy consumer preferences, companies around the world are following suit. 

And paper mills are taking notice.

Many have taken initiatives to go green and switch production of standard plastic packaging to more sustainable packaging. 

Converting these machines is an undertaking of large investments, time, and innovation. When working with these new materials, producers have to be aware of:

  • Developing the right packaging solution
  • Offering recyclable replacement options
  • Offering a lower carbon footprint
  • Creating packaging with sufficient barrier properties

Now industries that use these mills, like the pressure-sensitive label industry, are having to compete for use of these machines. And time equals money.

So if plastic is being pushed out of production, how is the machinery in these mills being used?

Two words: renewable packaging. 

These alternative, environmentally friendly materials are flourishing in the current global market.

A Change to Packaging

The rise in renewable packaging is drawing increased demand for paper and other alternative materials. 

In lieu of plastic, more and more companies are taking a greener approach with recyclable materials for their products, even ones that were previously sold in plastic.

Nowadays plastic is being replaced with renewable materials like:

  • Paper
  • Corrugate
  • Cardboard
  • Compost

But why is this market shifting?

Simple: sustainable packaging is a booming market. 

The Growth of Sustainable Packaging

Sustainable packaging is projected to grow to $348 billion dollars by 2026, up from $247 billion in 2019. 

This coincides with the problems currently plaguing the pulp industry; specifically higher prices and depleted raw material inventories. 

For example, Northern Bleached Softwood Kraft (NBSK), a key supply in label production, increased in mid-April to its highest-ever price of $1,665/ton, according to RISI. Despite demand, supply is “very tight,” to the point that customers cannot get orders. 

As demand for renewable materials rises, pulp and paper mills are converting their machinery to utilize packaging instead as a way to compensate. This takes key time away from production of items like self-adhesive labels, which are already in short supply. 

If we want to know where these changes are heading, we should look no further than what is happening in Europe.

That’s because the European market tends to influence the direction the U.S market will take.

Europe’s Green Initiative

Paper bags are used in the grocery checkout instead of single use plastic

To figure out where the U.S. paper industry is headed next, we should take a look at the policies Europe has adopted.

Why? Because we’re on track to follow suit. 

For years, the world has been shifting to more sustainable options. 

And Europe has been ahead of the game on these practices.

Topics like the critical impact of climate change and global warming are engaging consumers to pay more attention to everyday products they’re purchasing, using, and disposing of. 

This rise in consciousness is pushing companies to adopt greener initiatives through renewable, recyclable, and sustainable materials. 

It also means saying goodbye to plastic.

Ban on Single Use Plastic Packaging

Do you ever stop and think about how much plastic consumes your daily life? Products purchased only to be used and thrown away after a single use.

And nowadays they’re used for just about everything, like:

  • Water bottles
  • Shopping bags
  • Cutlery
  • Food containers
  • Beverage cups
  • Straws 
  • Packaging materials

However, the recent pandemic caused an unprecedented surge in the production of single use plastic, especially with the boom in e-commerce and D2C packaging. 

To help stem the ongoing rise in environmentally harmful materials, the European Union (EU) passed a ban on specific single-use plastics in July 2021.

They defined these products:

  • “Made wholly or partially from plastic and that is not conceived, designed, or placed on the market to be used multiple times for the same product.”

The ban targets products for which alternatives are available, more affordable, and eco-friendly. 

Through these more sustainable materials, Europe has become a market leader with one specific type of packaging: aseptic packaging.

Aseptic Packaging

Think back to your middle school days when lunch was served. Do you remember those iconic cardboard milk cartons you were served?

If so, you know about aseptic packaging!

And it’s an expanding market too, one that’s expected to grow to $81 billion by 2027.

But what exactly makes this packaging trend so unique?

Aseptic packaging uses a special manufacturing process where products are sterilized separately before being combined and sealed in a sterilized environment. 

And because it’s environmentally friendly, aseptic packaging is finding its way onto more store shelves.

It’s commonly utilized for beverages as well as food and pharmaceutical products, which is why the sterilization process is so critical – it helps prolong shelf life by safely preserving the product with fewer additives. 

Several materials are layered together, providing protection that’s required for aseptic standards. This includes materials like:

  • Paper
  • Polyethylene 
  • Aluminum
  • Film

These material alternatives significantly reduce the need for plastic packaging. As these sustainable options become more integrated into the European market, the influence is making its way to the U.S. 

So what changes have been made to accommodate this market shift?

The deconstructed layers of an aseptic package are shown

U.S. Shifting to Sustainability

Many U.S. mills have converted key machinery to accommodate the rising demand for alternative packaging.

For example, PCA (Packaging Corp. of America) announced plans in 2021 to permanently convert one of their paper machines to produce linerboard that’s used in corrugated packaging. The conversion would take 3 years to complete and cost $440 million. 

The shift to replace plastic packaging with more sustainable materials is one example of this, with interest in these growing products causing paper mills to take notice.

Non-Plastic Packaging Options

Many U.S. companies have been taking the initiative when it comes to the sustainable packaging market. 

Sustainability goals and development are huge initiatives for these brands, often propelled by the environmentally friendly packaging options they market.

One example is Boxed Water.  

An alternative to the commonly used plastic water bottle, Boxed Water was the first company to offer sustainable packaging for these types of single-use products back in 2009. 

Their brand centers around providing “a better solution” to helping the planet with 92% plant-based packaging and a reduction to plastic waste.

The packing literally states, “boxed water is better,” as it’s 100% recyclable and refillable with a 36% lower carbon footprint.

Products like Boxed Water are where we see the shift to packaging products growing.

Companies Embracing Sustainability

Boxed Water isn’t the only company progressing the use of sustainable materials.

As consumer buying habits continue to lean toward greener options, big name brands are taking notice.

The UN’s published 17 Sustainable Development Goals  are often referenced by companies detailing their green initiatives. 

For packaging, these can look like commitments to:

  • Recyclable materials
  • Reduction in plastic waste
  • Reducing greenhouse gas emissions
  • Produced sustainability

In many cases, these changes center around new product packaging. Specifically to more sustainable options so items can be reused or recycled.

Below are some examples of how corporate companies are changing their packaging to embrace the change to sustainability.

Nestle has been researching more sustainable trends in regards to packaging, listing goals to ensure none of their packaging ends up in landfills or as litter. Their 2021 Shareholder Sustainability Report stated the company had 74.9% of plastic packaging designed for recycling. Nestle also discusses the harmful materials they plan to phase out from packaging in the upcoming years. Read more on Nestle’s sustainable values here.

A German chocolate manufacturer with a mission for sustainability, (they pledged it back in 1991), Ritter Sport has been using a “fully recyclable single-material packaging made of polypropylene.” This recognizable, light weight material helps reduce the amount of packaging compared to more conventional packaging for chocolate bars. Although the majority of their primary packaging is still made of polypropylene, Ritter Sport is working to develop paper packaging. Their goal is to convert all packaging to renewable, raw materials by 2025. Read Ritter Sport’s 2020 Sustainability Report here.

Walmart’s website has an entire page dedicated to their fight against climate change, including their pledges for reduction of unnecessary packaging, better use of materials and increases to reuse and recycling. Their Sustainable Packaging Playbook provides practices for “suppliers interested in improving and innovating packaging.” Check it out here

As a global company, Driscoll’s recognized the consequences of single-use plastics and began reducing the material in their own product. Their European region’s newest introduction of sustainable paper packs are “made with 98% and 94% less plastic.” The material is made with FSC certified paper to better preserve the product as they continue to promote sustainable solutions for consumers. Learn more here.  

Conclusion

Sustainability is creating new opportunities for companies to exchange wasteful plastic with environmentally friendly options. 

As this trend continues to grow, more paper mills are likely to shift their focus from labels to producing renewable packaging.

With fewer mills remaining, the competition for production time is likely to increase. 

Ultimately, we’re watching the current market change before our eyes.