Paper tigers


These are changing times for pulp and paper makers. While mill and machinery closures across Europe and the UK have resulted in shrinking capacity, particularly for graphical paper grades, this has been offset by a shift in manufacturing focus.

Increasingly, producers are seeing opportunities to take advantage of wider trends in the printing industry such as growing demand for fibre-based packaging materials.

Martyn Eustace, chairman of Two Sides, says public appetite for alternatives to single-use plastics is putting increasing pressure on retailers and consumer goods companies to work with their supply chains to come up with less wasteful solutions – one being a switch to renewable materials. “Investment and innovation by the pulp and paper sector is at an all-time high in response to a surge in requests for paper-based packaging,” Eustace says.

At the same time mill owners are having to be more mindful when it comes to responsible sourcing of raw materials and doing more with less, whether that’s making their production operations more energy and water efficient, or extracting more value from fibre. Supplying products with a reduced carbon impact has become a priority for many.

“A reference to sustainability is an important message now for all printers in their marketing activities,” Eustace says. “Many printers are under pressure, particular from major brands for whom carbon reduction is high on their corporate agenda, to supply print that has had its carbon impact balanced or otherwise offset.”

As a result, papermakers are having to work smarter. Barry Read, chief executive of the Paper Industry Technical Association (PITA), says several mills are not only converting their machines to produce packaging grades, but engaging in new product development by optimising the properties of paper for specific applications. “The paper industry is having to look towards more technically advanced products for the future,” he says.

Stora Enso’s paperboard tube for cosmetics packaging is one example of how the sector is pushing forward on this front. The paperboard is barrier-coated and grease-resistant, making it suitable for the primary packaging of skin creams.

Henna Pääkkönen-Alvim, vice-president of innovations for Stora Enso’s consumer board division, says that 70% of the tube body comprises wood fibre sourced from sustainably managed forests, and that after the tube has undergone potential recycling cycles, its final disposal via incineration releases 70% less fossil CO2 emissions compared to a plastic equivalent.

“As a next step, we are working on replacing the plastic shoulder and cap of the tube with our biocomposite material containing around 40%-50% of wood fibre,” Pääkkönen-Alvim says. She adds that printing trials of the tube have shown good results with flexo technology, the most common method for printing cosmetics tubes.

New products

Recyclability is an area where the industry excels, says PITA’s Read, as most paper-based products can be converted into papermaking pulp. “There are one or two products which are less easy to recycle as they have either been contaminated or specifically treated to make the product more functional. But we are developing ways of recycling these products and extracting usable fibre for use as a raw material for new products,” he says.

Take disposable paper cups. Stora Enso’s Langerbrugge Mill in Belgium is exploring the recycling of these cups for magazine paper production. During mill trials, half a million post-consumer cups collected from fast-food restaurants and coffee houses were re-pulped and recycled into magazine paper.

“The result confirmed that paper cups can be recycled at the mill without any additional process equipment, and the fibres are well suited for other paper applications,” Pääkkönen-Alvim says. She adds that the company is looking to enter into strategic partnerships on the cup collection and sorting side to scale up this venture.

In the UK, James Cropper has partnered with Hallmark to launch a card collection made from upcycled coffee cups, using its CupCycling technology. “Hallmark had heard about the work we are doing on CupCycling and wanted to look at developing a range of cards aligned to their environmental commitments,” says Richard Burnett, market sector manager at James Cropper.

With CupCycling, Burnett says 95% of cup waste can be converted back into paper with the remaining 5% of plastic used for energy recovery in the production of recycled paper. He adds that CupCycled fibre is virtually indistinguishable from virgin fibre in terms of quality and performance. He says: “There can sometimes be slight differences to the shade of CupCycled fibre when compared to virgin fibre, however these do not call for any specific considerations to be made for printing.”

The uncoated card specification was trialled throughout the development process to ensure a smooth transition from design to production. Burnett adds that printing companies don’t need to adapt their processes to print on CupCycled fibre. “It can be treated as a standard uncoated stock,” he says.

CupCycled fibre claims to have a significantly reduced carbon footprint profile compared with other fibre sources, and Barnett says its applications for print are unlimited. “CupCycling fibres have been used to develop papers for luxury packaging, typically embossed and foil printed, annual reports, brochures and artist pads.”

Planning for the end

Green labelling solutions are also emerging, such as UPM Raflatac’s range of SmartCircle wash-off labels, to help increase the recyclability of plastic (PET) and reuse of glass packaging. SmartCircle labels are designed to resist moisture during product use, but separate easily from the packaging during industrial washing. “This innovation makes the label stay on the container until it is intentionally separated in the recycling process,” says Oona Koski, sustainability manager at UPM Raflatac.

According to Koski, during the washing process, labels with typical adhesives tend to stick to the PET flakes in shredded bottles causing contamination, but with SmartCircle wash-off adhesives the label floats, enabling clean PET flakes to sink to the bottom of the tank. “This leaves us with high-quality recycled primary packaging material, and the label itself can be downcycled to less demanding plastic applications.”

Koski adds that SmartCircle labels can be printed like standard film materials, but that printers should pay special attention to the type of ink used to ensure a clean stream of recycled PET. “Some label inks bleed colour in the reclamation process, discolouring the PET in contact with them and significantly diminishing its value for recycling.”

Meanwhile the growth of the bio-economy is opening up opportunities to extract higher value from fibre. UPM’s BioVerno naphtha, a bio-plastic raw material made from tall oil, a residue of the pulp production process, is being used in Arla’s paperboard cartons for dairy products. UPM says switching to BioVerno should reduce the packaging’s carbon footprint by about a fifth, displacing around 180,000kg fossil-based plastics each year.

Due to its unique properties, there is also rising interest in using nanocellulose, acquired in the form of fibrils or crystals by processing wood fibre. In the Netherlands, Sappi has built a pilot-scale plant for the production of cellulose nano fibrils (CNF).

“Fibrillated cellulose is not a total replacement for traditional cellulose fibre, but both in combination can enhance paper in a number of ways – from improved strength, increased yield and enhancing the surface in terms of print surface and barrier,” says Matt Spence, vice-president for nanocellulose at Sappi.

Spence adds that Sappi is exploring “a number of ways” in which to refine its paper grades with its Valida-branded fibrillated cellulose technology. “Paper products enhanced with Valida can be used in a wide variety of applications from graphic papers, packaging papers and multi-functional specialty papers. Valida can also be used to enhance ink.”

In Sweden, SCA is focused on delivering high-strength paper grades that also demonstrate strong environmental profiles. SCA Pure is its latest offering, a softwood fibre, which claims to feature radically improved tensile and tear strength and comes with varying brightness levels for different applications.

The fibre for SCA Pure is sourced from SCA’s own forests and produced at one of the company’s most energy-efficient mills to ensure a low carbon footprint. The pulp can also be manufactured using a totally chlorine free (TCF) bleaching process. Kristina Enander, SCA’s business area manager for pulp, says the low coarseness of the product results in “very good runnability and creates good surface properties for most printing papers”.

Environmental considerations were also a key driver behind Leipa’s decision to develop a hybrid paper, suitable for gravure or heatset web offset printing. “When Leipa made the decision at the end of 2018 to stop the production of our ultraMAG Rotogravure paper, there was a strong appetite from customers to find a solution for them to continue to use 100% recycled paper,” says Sarah Lesting, who is responsible for Leipa UK paper and packaging sales.

This led to Leipa collaborating with printer Prinovis and Craft Worldwide, part of advertising agency McCann Worldgroup, to develop a paper that could bridge the gap between offset and gravure. “The solution this paper offers is the ability to print rotogravure on what is in its simplest form, an offset paper,” says Lesting, adding that the paper has generated a huge amount of interest. “We are supporting customers who seek to trial this grade going forward.”

Looking ahead, demand for such enterprise is likely to continue. Two Sides’ Eustace says that printers are widening their product offering and diversifying into other areas of printing such as point-of-sale, wide format, high-value books and personalised print.

“Print is going to be around for a long time, but ink on paper is only going to be part of the story,” he says. “The change from plastics to paper is good for our industry, but we must not be complacent. All packaging will be scrutinised and constant innovation is needed to reduce the impact of all packaging materials.”

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