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It was impossible to miss the “fiberization of packaging” at the 2023 Pack Expo Las Vegas tradeshow.

Lisa McTigue Pierce

September 14, 2023

5 Min Read
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A sampling of paper packaging seen at Pack Expo Las Vegas 2023.Packaging Digest, Lisa Pierce

Sustainability has been a critical trend in packaging in the US for decades now. But it shows no signs of doing anything other than accelerating, as proved by the activities at the Pack Expo Las Vegas show last week.

Another impetus is that younger consumers, especially Gen Zs, feel more passionately about sustainability, climate change, and saving the earth than any other generation. As they grow up and spend more as consumers (remember, though, they are quite frugal and love shopping consignment shops!), communicating your brand’s sustainability commitment, on-pack when possible, will be Job #1.

A more recent development for packaging sustainability has been a war on plastics, and an affinity for paper packaging. While I understand the reasons behind the tsunami shift from plastic to paper packaging (consumer preference and easy recyclability, mostly), I don’t agree with all instances of brand owners making this change. Paper packaging isn’t always the better choice from an environmental perspective. I’ll have more on this later, including some great Packaging Possibilities podcasts with industry leaders.

That said, the trend is happening anyway and packaging suppliers have been busy gearing up for this shift. Here are some of the many paper packaging developments and trends I saw at the show.

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ProAmpac coined the term “fiberization of packaging” and showed several new paper packaging products. Its patent-pending ProActive Recyclable RP-1000 High Barrier (HB) paper-based packaging, for example, is prequalified as curbside recyclable yet “seamlessly integrates with existing equipment, simplifying the transition process and minimizing costs compared to less efficient sustainable alternatives," according to Nathan Klettlinger, Global Marketing Director at ProAmpac. These two features — curbside recyclable and able to run on existing machinery — might not be deal breakers for brands to make the switch to paper packaging. But they definitely remove potential headaches.

• Big news at the show was the Smurfit Kappa merger/acquisition of WestRock. Our colleagues at Packaging Dive have done a great job covering the news (Packaging Digest and Packaging Dive are both owned by Informa). According to Packaging Dive: “The newly formed Smurfit WestRock could become the world’s largest publicly traded packaging company.” As to how this relates specifically to paper packaging, Packaging Dive reports: “The combined company also has the strategic benefit of bolstering current operations in Latin America, where Smurfit Kappa is seen as lacking in paper capacity.” And “More broadly, the companies see an opportunity to capitalize on the ‘mega-trend’ of sustainability by offering a broader range of ‘renewable, recyclable and biodegradable packaging.’”

• Wanda Speer, Marketing Manager, showed me clever carton designs from Colbert Packaging, including an efficient way to include an informational booklet with the carton. Unfortunately, I don’t have a photo of this but … imagine a wraparound folding carton, where the top layers completely overlap  and the booklet is trapped between those two layers — but is easily removed by the consumer. Positioning it this way means product loading into the carton is not hampered by the presence of a booklet, allowing for higher loading speeds. This is my description so you can visualize it, though it may not be the way the carton is physically formed and the leaflet included. I didn’t see it in operation.

• We’re seeing ecommerce direct-to-consumer fulfillment operations get more automated within a brand owner’s manufacturing facility. Several packaging equipment companies with solutions for DTC shipping made sure to point out the flexibility of handling rolls of paper or poly packaging on a single machine. Like the 650 SI (for servo intermittent) from PAC Machinery, demo’ed by Regional Sales Manager Blake Knisely. Packaging Digest will have more on ecommerce packaging equipment for brands in the coming weeks.

• During the PMMI Media Briefing on Monday, September 11, Pierre Pienaar, President of the World Packaging Organisation, identified nanotechnology as one of five major packaging trends for developing nations. Perhaps developed nations should be looking at that as a potential “natural” non-plastic barrier option for paper packaging. Would love to hear what other people think of this.

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• Ray Babbitt, Regional Sales Manager for Koch Packaging, showed me the company’s paper blister packaging options. But he also reminded me to realize that the size of the sheet of paper used to form the cavity is much larger vs a plastic sheet. You can see in the photo how the paper is folder to form the “cup.” That’s a lot of material compared to a thermoformed plastic blister that softens and stretches.

• Todd Meussling, Senior Manager, Market Development for Fresh-Lock, showed me some of the company’s new sustainable products, including Fresh-Lock Renewables, a bio-based (sugarcane) material that’s recyclable. This was a development in collaboration with flexible packaging company Accredo Packaging. I took the opportunity to ask if Fresh-Lock is developing or plans to develop a reclose feature for paper packages. Meussling says he’s had the same question from customers. And, yes, the company is looking into it (what would it seal to?) and expects(hopes?) to have a solution in 2024. Perhaps a compostable zipper would work.

9-15-23 UPDATE: My colleague Lindy Hughson did a LinkedIn Day 2 report from Pack Expo Las Vegas on innovations in fiber packaging that you might find helpful. She is the Managing Editor & Publisher of PKN Packaging News from Australia; Publisher of Food & Drink Business, Print21, and Climate Control News; and President of International Packaging Press Organisation (of which I also serve on the IPPO board as Secretary General).
 

About the Author(s)

Lisa McTigue Pierce

Executive Editor, Packaging Digest

Lisa McTigue Pierce is Executive Editor of Packaging Digest. She’s been a packaging media journalist since 1982 and tracks emerging trends, new technologies, and best practices across a spectrum of markets for the publication’s global community. Reach her at [email protected] or 630-272-1774.

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