In a busy city like Hong Kong, meals are often taken on-the-go and the ingredients purchased from supermarkets. The conventional choice of food-packaging materials has always been plastic and foil. However, recent technological breakthroughs have allowed paper to come to the fore as a safer, more eco-friendly, food-packaging material.
The sales revenue for global paper packaging sector has reached $354.2 billion in 2012, with this figure set to rise. This “second wind” is being driven initially by basic consumer demand in emerging countries, but also by a drive for intelligent, recyclable and environmentally friendly packaging in the developed world. In the long run, this high demand for environmentally friendly packaging should continue because of the rising living standard and an increasing demand for supermarkets.
Technological advancements have made paper the go-to material for food packaging as it avoids some of the drawbacks of plastic or metal packaging. While metal packaging can be recycled, it is expensive and energy-intensive to do so. The recycling of plastics also poses problems for the authorities with the diverse range of plastics on the market, many of which are not recyclable. Concerning food safety, substances such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and Bisphenol A (BPA) have come under fire in a number of countries including Canada, Spain, Denmark, and South Korea.
Consumers are concerned about materials for food packaging. Sustainable paper technologies will create goodwill. Paper made from pulp and renewable plantations provides end-users with peace-of-mind about the environmental origins of the feedstock. However, paper is by no means perfect. There remain issues around deforestation, so buyers have to put special attention to the traceability of suppliers’ paper products. Secondly, the paper-making and recycling process can be water and energy-intensive. The focus is now on reducing the impact of the production process on the environment, rather than just making an environmentally friendly end-product. Innovations such as Foopak, a food grade product which is certified by the U.S. FDA and ISEGA, that is safe when directly contacting with food, have made paper a leader in terms of food-grade safety and resistance to heat and damp.
Other new innovative solutions are being developed to increase efficiency. For example, the Confederation of European Paper Industries — the industry trade body in Europe — has organized a competition involving teams of scientists, companies, suppliers and outsiders working to identify viable concepts to help achieve the industry’s environmental objectives. The winning concept, known as “deep eutectic solvents,” is a brand-new technology which, at low temperatures, breaks the biomass down into constituent parts that can then be used in the paper and pulp industries, using less energy and water throughout the process. The concept not only has the potential to reduce the environmental impact of the paper-making process, but also create feedstock for other industries.
Another example is that a mill operated by a key player in the industry in Hainan uses extensive filtration and separation technologies which allow it to purify and reuse water in the production.
We are becoming increasingly aware of the interconnected nature of the natural world and so we need to consider a product’s entire life cycle. In forest-rich Indonesia, leading pulp and paper companies have led the way in implementing zero deforestation policy. With proper management of existing plantations there should be no need for any further forest clearance, meaning the forestry and paper industry can be managed in a sustainable way.
The author is manager of sustainability and stakeholder engagement (HK), Asia Pulp & Paper.
This blog was also published on China Daily Asia: http://www.chinadailyasia.com/opinion/2014-03/28/content_15127594.html.