Meet the Sustainable Darling of the Beverage Industry: Paper Packaging

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Drink this in: The beverage industry is turning its eye toward paper packaging in greater numbers. Between bag-in-box constructions and the classic six-pack carrier, paper isn’t a new player in the beverage market. But its legacy is only beginning.

Trends in beverage packaging are driven by the same key factor as the trends in the drinks themselves—namely, consumers. Sustainability, personalization and e-commerce all ladder up to a shift in the end consumer’s expectations, and that expectation drives innovation in packaging. At Pack Expo 2019, Ron Puvak, managing director at the Contract Packaging Association, led a “Trends in Beverage Packaging” session covering the elements that determine a drink’s “wrapper.” 

Basic demographics come into play here, Puvak says, with millennials and Generation Z demanding more sustainable products, and the boomer population increasingly following their children’s and grandchildren’s lead. According to Nielsen, 81 percent of global consumers feel strongly that companies should help the environment.

The results are manifested visibly with paper packaging, whether it’s a product in hand like Boxed Water or bag-in-box constructions like boxed wine. But according to Puvak, the focus on materials, while important, is low-hanging fruit. “If you’re already into sustainability—and everybody is—you now have a lot of things to consider,” he says. 

As consumers become more educated about sustainability and demand more from brands, they’re paying attention to processes and systems as well. This affects product design directly, through innovations such as refillable products and concentrates. It also shapes the big picture: Thanks to consumer demand, leading global food and beverage producers have set goals to have all packaging be recyclable or compostable by 2025. This commitment to principles of the circular economy and green chemistry has potential to lead to more paper innovations. For example, researchers are investigating bio-friendly coatings that will offer paperboard even more protection, relying on green chemistry.

Other consumer forces are shaping beverage packaging trends. E-commerce is reaching into grocery shopping; by 2022, spending could reach $100 billion a year. Safe shipping of beverages will grow in importance along with the e-grocery market, prompting more inventive protection measures. Beverages will need to stay more shelf-stable. “Paper is up there in shelf stability,” says Julie Rice, academic director of The Packaging School, who also presented at Pack Expo 2019 with her session “Fundamentals of Beverage Packaging and Beverage Institute by ISBT.”

The beverage market will also be increasingly characterized by high-value products with relatively low volume opportunities, such as coconut water, almond nondairy beverages and juices using high-pressure processing. Companies that work in these low-volume segments often struggle to get off the ground, but the end product still requires a connotation of prestige. This opens the door for an area where paper packaging shines: printing flexibility, printing customization and a premium feel. (Sixty-three percent of people surveyed said that paper-based packaging makes a product appear more premium.) 

These innovations are exciting, but in some ways they’re unsurprising—and overdue. Paper has qualities that make it appealing to beverage producers and consumers. In addition to its shelf stability, paper substrates also bump up a beverage’s shelf appeal, thanks to how well it takes to various printing processes. Multipack carriers in particular offer good “billboard” space on a shelf. It’s a consideration for all multipack beverages, but particularly so in the craft beer industry, which is doing well but no longer tallying the massive growth of years past—and which sees 70 percent of its consumers deciding what to buy at the shelf, not in advance.

But even with all its other benefits, it’s paper’s sustainability advantages that are bringing it into the spotlight. Paper packaging begins and ends with sustainability: It’s made from renewable resources, and it’s consistently one of the world’s most recycled material. “There’s a lot of pressure on natural resources, and this is happening as packaging demand increases. So forest management is essential,” Rice says.

“Paper is the only option that is truly renewable,” says Robert Koenen, chief marketing officer of Boxed Water. “Trees can be replanted; oil and bauxite are limited resources. Paper is the basis of our entire brand—it’s sustainable, it’s recyclable, and it also allows us to keep our water perfectly pure. We wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for paper. We believe that there is a tidal wave of demand coming from the next generation that is looking to help the planet survive, and paper is a key solution.” We’ll raise a glass—and a box—to that.

For all our coverage from the show, go to How Life Unfolds® at Pack Expo 2019. 

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