Ancient technology, new packaging solutions: pushing the envelope of paper

Paper, a product nearly as old as human civilization, has found new uses over the millennia as people have pushed the envelope on its physical and chemical properties. The versatility and ubiquity of wood pulp, the foundation material of most paper, are inspiring startups—including Paptic, our latest portfolio company—to boldly reimagine the evolution of paper-based packaging.

This is a crucial undertaking, since packaging must change as sustainability grows in importance for companies, consumers and policymakers. Regulations on single-use plastics are spreading. Major markets in Europe, Asia and the Americas are banning or sharply curtailing their use and forcing makers of products packaged in single-use plastics to pay to clean up plastic waste. This makes wood pulp-based packaging, which is bio-based, recyclable and bio-degradable, a compelling alternative in many instances.

In this interview, Fredric Petit, Emerald partner and co-lead of our sustainable packaging innovation fund, explains why substitutes for plastic are gaining favor and the rationale behind the Paptic deal.

Fredric Petit, Packaging Partner, Emerald

Why are companies looking for alternatives to plastic for packaging?

Plastic packaging provides innumerable benefits, from keeping food fresh in transit to preventing damage to breakable objects. But as products circulate in ever-greater volumes, managing leftover plastic is becoming increasingly burdensome, both on the environment and on waste processing systems. Plastic does not break down easily and cannot be recycled in many contexts. A lot of it ends up in landfill or washing out to sea. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a prominent thought leader in this space, if current trends hold, plastic pollution in the ocean could quadruple to 600,000,000 metric tons by 2040.

This is spurring many companies—especially big producers of mass-market goods—to reduce their plastic footprint in packaging. In many places, regulators are forcing their hand. Restrictions on single-use plastics have increased from fewer than five a decade ago to nearly 20 today. Developed countries are not the only ones concerned about this. More countries in Africa and Asia have enacted bans on plastic bags than any other continent.

How can packaging made from wood pulp fill some of the demand?

People generally expect packaging to protect what’s inside (and, in the case of food, to keep it fresh) without adding a huge amount of weight, volume or cost. Wood pulp is essentially paper, but depending on how it’s processed, it can be much stronger and more resilient than your average sheet of printer paper, and much softer and more flexible than cardboard. Although it cannot replace plastic for everything, its applications are potentially vast, including:

  • E-commerce mailers, of the sort Amazon piles on people’s doorsteps everyday
  • Retail bags that need to have higher durability than plain paper bags
  • Labels that convey information like package contents or the shopper’s address
  • Non-food flexible packaging for goods like toys, electronics and hygienic products
  • Flexible packaging for food, including frozen food, candy and dried food

Given Emerald’s interest in boosting sustainability in packaging, why is Paptic the right investment?

In virtually all the above areas, the kind of innovative wood pulp-based packaging that Paptic specializes in can achieve equal or better outcomes compared with leading alternatives, especially when it comes to circularity. This includes reusability, recyclability and biodegradability, providing a variety of options to deal with end-of-life for packaging that may otherwise defy easy solutions.