Fiber-Based Packaging – a Sustainable Alternative to Plastic Films?

First Published: February 19, 2024

Plastic films are widely used in the packaging industry for their. performance, low cost, low weight, durability, and convenience. However, plastic films also pose a serious environmental problem, as they are challenging to recycle and often end up in landfills or oceans, where they can harm wildlife and ecosystems.

According to a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling globally, and only 2% is recycled into the same quality material.

Fiber-based flexible packaging, on the other hand, offers a more sustainable solution that can reduce the use of plastic and improve the recyclability of packaging materials. Fiber-based packaging is made from renewable sources, such as wood pulp, cellulose, or agricultural residues, and can be processed into thin, flexible, and strong films that can replace plastic films in many applications, such as food, beverages, cosmetics, and personal care products.

Fiber-based packaging has several advantages over plastic films, such as:

– It can be recycled with paper, which has a well-established collection and recycling system in many countries. Unlike plastic films, which often need to be separated from other materials and sorted by type and color, fiber-based packaging can be easily mixed with other paper products and recovered as pulp.

– It can be biodegradable and compostable, which means it can break down naturally in soil or industrial composting facilities without leaving any harmful residues or microplastics. Some fiber-based packaging materials, such as cellulose acetate, can also be certified as home compostable, which means they can be disposed of in domestic compost bins or gardens.

– It can be made from renewable and low-impact sources, such as certified forests, recycled paper, or agricultural waste, which can reduce the dependence on fossil fuels and lower the greenhouse gas emissions and water consumption associated with packaging production.

– It can provide similar or better performance than plastic films, such as barrier properties, sealability, printability, and transparency, depending on the type and composition of the fiber-based material. Some fiber-based packaging materials, such as nanocellulose, can even offer superior mechanical strength, flexibility, and biocompatibility than plastic films.

However, fiber-based packaging also faces some challenges and limitations, such as:

– It can be more expensive than plastic films due to the higher cost of raw materials, processing, and transportation. The price gap between fiber-based and plastic packaging may vary depending on the market conditions and the availability of subsidies or incentives for sustainable packaging.

– It can require adjustments or modifications in the packaging machinery and equipment, as fiber-based materials may have different physical and chemical properties than plastic films, such as thickness, stiffness, moisture sensitivity, and heat resistance. Some packaging machines may need to be modified or even replaced to run fiber-based materials efficiently and effectively.

Equipment OEMs, such as PAC Machinery, have stepped up and introduced packaging systems that can operate with fiber-based packaging for applications that would have traditionally used plastic films:

PAC Machinery Flow Wrapper Running Curbside Recyclable Material

– It can face consumer perception and acceptance issues, as some consumers may prefer plastic films for their familiarity, convenience, or perceived quality. Fiber-based packaging may also need to overcome some technical challenges, such as ensuring> the safety, shelf life, and appearance of the packaged products, especially for sensitive items, such as fresh food or pharmaceuticals.

Therefore, fiber-based packaging is a promising alternative to plastic films that can offer environmental and social benefits, but it also requires careful consideration and evaluation of the economic and technical feasibility, as well as consumer preferences and behavior.

Fiber-based packaging is not a one-size-fits-all solution but rather a diverse and evolving category of materials that can be tailored and optimized for different packaging applications and markets. By collaborating and innovating across the value chain, from raw material suppliers to packaging converters, manufacturers, retailers, and consumers, fiber-based packaging can become a viable and competitive option for sustainable packaging in the future.

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