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Is paper's packaging share a house of cards?


Paradigms shift frequently like sand dunes in the Sahara. You may think you're on solid ground producing packaging with a material such as paper, for instance. And then, boom! Suddenly, they say it will no longer be the most dominant material for packaging. That's exactly what's happening with paper versus plastic, according to a recent study by the Freedonia Group. 

This study points out that through 2014, plastic packaging is expected to make further inroads in its competition with paper as the most dominant packaging material. Freedonia predicts that some time in the next four years, use of plastics will exceed that of paper in packaging applications.

You may ask: "Didn't that happen years ago?" After all, plastic seems ubiquitous with so many new applications every day. It's easy to forget that paper has been the 800-lb gorilla of the packaging world for a long time. 

In selected packaging markets where paper and plastic compete, Freedonia says plastic will increase its overall volume share, although at a slower pace than in the 2004-2009 period due to the maturity of a number of plastic applications. Plastics' use is expected to increase 2.3 percent annually to 49 percent of the market in 2014. Freedonia says this percentage understates plastic's share since less plastic is required than paper in most applications. 

Plastic's growth can be attributed to its advantages of light weight, moisture resistance, good barrier properties, clarity and puncture resistance, convenience features such as recloseability and the industry's desire to do more downgauging. Most plastic, however, is made from petrochemical materials that are becoming increasingly costly. Also, many consumers think plastic has poor environmental credentials.

Nevertheless, the plastics sector receives the lion's share of R&D, although bioplastics and nano-enhanced materials only now are approaching commercial viability.

So, plastic will continue its growth, especially in the $400 billion global market for primary packaging. In flexible packaging, for instance, plastic's market share exceeds 70 percent.

However, paper still holds sway in the secondary packaging market. A recent global packaging study by Visiongain places the value of the paper packaging market at $228.3 billion in 2010. Visiongain concludes that paper-based packaging is sustained by its "naturalness," its recyclability, its versatility and its low cost. Improving paper's barrier properties is seen as a crucial step in increasing its viability as a packaging material. 

Overall paper demand is expected to increase 1 percent annually through 2014, Freedonia says. 

Based on paper's environmental credentials, Visiongain says, the future dominance of plastic is less a fact than its adherents would have the market believe. 



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