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The tissue industry, like all production systems, must find the answer to the planet’s plastic problem.

Many companies are already advanced inresearch. Pirkko Petäjä, principal at ÅF Pöyry AB Management Consulting Division, examines the latest best-hope developments.

Pirkko Petäjä
Principal, Poyry Management Consulting

Plastic recycling and bio-based plastics The world is crying out for a solution to the plastic problem, not only because of the huge amount of fossil-based oil that is needed for its production, but also because too often used plastics end up discarded in nature.

The annual plastics production is reaching some 400 million tonnes.

When it comes to the tissue industry, plastic has been intrinsic to tissue product packaging, and plastic materials play a fundamental role in protecting, preserving, transporting and promoting the tissue products.

For this reason the tissue industry and its interest groups, particularly clients, have been increasingly concerned about the global plastic waste problem.

While tissue production is developed towards more and more sustainable processes and raw materials, tissue is typically packed in virgin plastics PE/PP in its primary and secondary packaging and also the pallets are wrapped in plastics.

This destroys the image of a sustainable product and increases for its part the accumulated world plastic waste problem that is already alarming.

The transition away from fossil plastics may require several steps and phases.

The requirements in the tissue packaging, quality and quantity, solutions available, achievable schedules, costs and future developments, etc, should be carefully studied and evaluated to find the right pathway.

What is required from the new solution?

First of all it must perform in the package and do the job it is used for.

It also needs to run in increasingly automated, fast high performance production lines.

Whatever it is it must be available in large quantities and at reasonable prices.

Recycled plastic is a good starting point.

The European Union has recently voted to ban single-use plastics by 2021; recycling would remove at least the single-use.

However, the package must be usable in economically sustainable recycling chains and compatible with existing recycling systems.

It can take time to establish deposit schemes for tissue packaging but it can work as it works in many places for bottles and cans.

However, recycled plastic is still plastic, of fossil origin, and can still end up in nature.

It is also perceived by consumers as plastic, and not as particularly sustainable.

The second phase is to add bio-based content to the plastic feedstock.

However, bioplastics, plant or animal based, are still very expensive.

In addition, they are not available in the quantities needed.

A close loop of bio-based recycled plastics may be the desirable end-state but it is still really far away and the bioplastics alone are not a practical solution any time soon for the whole tissue industry’s needs.

Fibre-based packaging Paper packaging of tissue has woken a lot of interest and many producers have made tests and trials together with the packaging machinery suppliers.

Several producers already offer paper packed tissue often alongside with existing products.

Most of the focus has been on wrapping, bundlers are still on their way and pallet packaging probably comes even further in the future.

Paper is used in several different ways and is capable of effectively replacing plastics.

To have similar properties as plastic it can be laminated or extruded with plastic.

To get a more sustainable product paper can be coupled with ecological bioplastics made from starches and plant waste.

Fully compostable, recyclable and biodegradable packaging materials have been developed based on bioplastic surfacing.

These are more affordable and better available than bioplastics alone, but still an expensive solution that can be difficult to imagine everywhere in the very near future.

However, in a wide extent it is likely to be available sooner than packing in only bioplastics.

In addition to limitations in the performance, paper packaging material, thermo-sealable but not coated, is somewhat more expensive than normal poly.

Coated materials are even more expensive.

With several of the alternatives for coating or sealing, the problem is that the material cannot be re-pulped and this makes the operation much more complicated and increases costs.

Packaging machine suppliers have been active and enthusiastic in developing machinery for paper packing.

The ability to use paper can be retrofitted to most wrappers with reasonable cost.

The existing machinery is not revolutionarily changed, but the paper packing is interchangeable and compatible with current type of machinery.

Most package sizes can be produced with similar speed and efficiency than poly.

Adding some paper packing in the portfolio can thus be relatively easy.

Casepacking is another fibrebased solution that has been offered.

Casepacking can be sustainable, biodegradable, offers more protection than poly bundlers and can be used in sales directly to customers, for instance as an e-commerce ready product.

Rolls in the box can be un-wrapped or paper wrapped as boxes protect them quite well.

For smaller streams case packing can be a sustainable and relatively fast achievable solution.

Is paper packaging of tissue a marketing trick?

Tissue is now starting to be offered in paper pack by many players, however, there is hardly any one full packaging line in continuous usage for this; it is only a niche, a token of environmental concern but an important signal for the consumers.

When it comes to the consumer perception, paper is more obviously and clearly ‘sustainable’ – you can see on the shelf it is something ‘natural’ and something new.

The main motivation for paper packing may well be in the marketing; it is difficult to see that any producer imagines this to become the standard any time soon.

Some paper packing available does not impact the global ‘plastic ocean’ problem but it shows the importance of sustainability issues in the company and is very important for the company image.

Pathway to sustainable tissue packaging

It is our understanding that tissue producers should map the alternatives for sustainable tissue packaging and define the pathway; the different stages and the target schedule for full implementation.

What is realistic and in what schedule it can be reached should be studied.

It may be necessary to approach the sustainable tissue packaging issue in multiple ways, starting from what is easily available through to full implementation based on something that is available only in the longer run.

Many have already started from reducing the thickness of the plastic film used and continuing by offering different sustainable solutions in different markets alongside with existing products.

Mapping the potential co-operation partners, alternative concepts, costs and schedules for both new bio-materials and plastic recycling systems is something where ÅF Pöyry has worked a lot and could help.

We are deeply involved in development of substituting fossil based plastic with bio-based, bio-degradable solutions.

Although many tissue companies are already advanced with this, potential additional ideas would never harm.

Sustainability issues are of utmost importance in tissue, but should be approached in multiple ways

Environmental and sustainability requirements have long been a ticket to play in many markets.

Certain basic requirements must be met in all the mature markets, some countries or segments being even stricter than others (typically Germany and Scandinavia).

However, removing plastic packaging from tissue will not save the world.

After all, the impact would be rather limited compared to many other plastic waste sources.

The plastic waste issue is also not the only problem.

The true sustainability in tissue is reached only by addressing the whole process and supply chain and taking care of all the sustainability elements throughout the chain.

Nothing in tissue would have a revolutionary impact alone; therefore sustainability must be collected from small streams starting from sustainable fibre choice, resource efficiency, i.e. water and energy efficiency, reduction of chemicals such as glues, sustainable packing, sustainable logistic solutions, etc.

Climate change is the environmental topic currently claiming the highest attention globally.

The type of external energy used in processing is the largest contributing factor for the tissue industry’s carbon footprint.

Due to the multiple elements in environmental sustainability, in labelling the products and highlighting sustainability, multiple impact labels and multiple measures are needed.