If plastics had its own Facebook page, it would see a lot of Unfriend responses reflective of the ongoing backlash against petrochemical-based polymers in general that’s primarily centered on straws, ocean debris, one-way plastics and microplastics.
Some companies have turned to alternative materials they consider as sustainably better, including bioplastics and others. Like paper that comes from the same sustainable source, lignin is an intriguing option from wood.
According to WikiPedia: “Lignin is a class of complex organic polymers that form key structural materials in the support tissues of vascular plants and some algae. Lignins are particularly important in the formation of cell walls, especially in wood and bark, because they lend rigidity and do not rot easily.”
Bernard Alowonou, vice president of global business management, new business areas, Lenzing AG, provides some information on this potential plastics replacement in which the vendor specializes.
What’s the background for this?
Alowonou: Single-use plastics are everywhere, from beverage bottles to plastic bags, with some arguing that they have become impossible to replace.
It’s easy to see why plastics have become such a phenomenon in the packaging industry. The material is comparatively cost effective, durable and can be used in many diverse applications. As a result, single-use plastics have long held a powerful monopoly over the market, one which has been challenged of late alongside new regulatory adjustments and company-based sustainability initiatives. The European Union has recently banned some single use plastics and committed to the complete reusability and recyclability of others by 2030. Over the last few years though, as environmental initiatives have renewed discussions surrounding their sustainability, new and more environmentally friendly alternatives have become increasingly available on the market. This will provide packagers with an easy-to-implement, but sustainable solution to single-use plastics.
Can you cite examples of truly sustainable materials?
Alowonou: Natural and raw materials have been proven as a sustainable, bio-based and biodegradable solution to plastics-based packaging. Saltwater brewery has developed an edible six pack ring in place of its traditional plastic-based variant. Made from barley and wheat, the ring is also easily compostable if not eaten.
In fact, the World Economic Forum suggests that innovative new delivery models that minimize waste through composability and reusability may save companies a total of $8 billion dollars in the beauty, personal care and home cleaning industries alone.
Among other natural materials, wood can also be repurposed as packaging. The adoption of wood-based botanic fibers ensures future packaging solutions to be compostable and biodegradable, completely returning to nature at the end of its use life.
Tell us about Lenzing’s wood-based material.
Alowonou:Lenzing’s botanic fibers are a compostable packaging material branded as LENZING branded lyocell and modal fibers. We mainly use European beech wood for our packaging applications and botanic nets. At the moment, we harvest our beech wood from certified and controlled renewable forests in Austria and neighboring countries to ensure we leave a minimal impact on the environment, using a closed loop production process.
These fibers can be manufactured into reusable bags as well as botanic nets and hot beverage packaging. In addition to demonstrating high performance and certified for food contact, the fibers are also fully biodegradable and compostable. During the lyocell fiber production, the process reuses the solvent at a recovery rate of more than 99%, and results in great resource efficiency and a low ecological impact.
In addition to their potential to reduce waste at both ends of the product’s lifecycle, botanic fibers-based nets and reusable bags are becoming increasingly popular as their use requires little change from companies or consumers which allows seamless incorporation into supply chains and customers’ everyday lives. Lenzing works in close cooperation with nets producer Verpackungszentrum Graz as well as retailers in Europe like Coop in Swiss and REWE Group in Austria, to ensure that their sustainable alternatives conform to current packaging processes.
With an ever-increasing array of innovative sustainable packaging solutions that promise biodegradability without compromising on performance and the easy transition to existing supply chain, companies no longer need to fear the changing regulatory environment surrounding single-use packaging. As companies continue to shift their focus away from plastic packaging, further innovations will follow, and higher demand will also increase cost saving potential. Brand owners should consider the switch to sustainable wood-based fiber packaging and decrease their environmental footprint.
What specific kinds of products and foods can they be used for? What type of packaging does it replace, plastic bags or plastic baskets?
Alowonou: Currently, we have designed our packaging to be used in applications such as bundled and pre-packaged fruit and vegetables. Our Lenzing branded fibers for use in botanic nets have been certified for its appliance to food and subscribe to stringent guidelines such as EU regulations. They are already in use at the Point of Sale sections of various supermarkets in Germany, Switzerland and Austria, and we are confident that list will grow substantially as the market for sustainable plastic alternatives continues to grow.
The strength of our packaging lies in replacing nets and bags made of plastics, and we are exploring the potential to expand to other areas where Lenzing fibers could be used as a preferred sustainable alternative in these areas.
Does Lenzing provide the netting or does another vendor?
Alowonou: We supply our Lenzing branded fibers to companies further down the supply chain who are responsible for delivering the end product. We also work incredibly close with all our industry suppliers and view all our partnerships as close collaborations.
Please point to customer examples.
Alowonou: Botanic nets made of Lenzing-branded fibers are now in use in various supermarkets in some EU countries. This list includes shops in Austria, Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK and Ireland, who are now in the process of transition away from plastic-based products and toward more environmentally friendly solutions made from our fibers.
We also provide Lenzing fibers for use to make washable multi-purpose bags, to act as a valuable and durable replacement to single-use plastic bags, which are available from retailers in some EU countries such as Switzerland and Austria.
What’s the level of activity?
Alowonou: We have seen a great interest in plastic-free packaging solutions made from fibers such as ours for some time now. The greatest interest has been in applications such as fruit and vegetable nets which are generally not being recycled.
It has been encouraging to see global regulations surrounding single-use plastics create a robust pathway toward a plastics-free future, and there is no doubt that these policies will play a vital role in driving consumer demand in the many more years to come.