Paper Bottles: Can we drink to save more trees?

WRITTEN BY Joseph A Olaniyan

August 13, 2023

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Paper Bottles: Can we drink to save more trees?

Joseph A Olaniyan

13 Aug, 2023

Over time, our consumption habits lead to environmental harm – we pollute oceans and landfills with plastics from our beverages. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation revealed that 8 million tonnes of plastic, worth billions of dollars, ends up as pollutants every year. Moving forward, if we don’t want to harm the planet, we must seek sustainable alternatives. According to market insights, paper bottles are a leading contender to replace single-use plastic. Big brands like Coca-Cola, Carlsberg, Absolut-Vodka, PepsiCo, and L’Oreal are shifting to paper packaging, to satisfy eco-conscious consumption and plastic-free resolutions. However, there is a problem – paper is made from trees!  

Experts suggest—we need significantly more paper to achieve the same function as plastic packaging. Meaning, if the demand for paper bottles increases significantly, it will require a large supply of trees, which could lead to deforestation and increasing CO2 emissions. This means that in addition to eco-conscious consumption, the use of paper bottles requires that we are responsible consumers.

What makes a paper bottle?

Paper bottles consist of sturdy fibres and plant-based PEF polymer lining. This coating keeps the inside firm, serving as a protective layer to prevent paper from having contact with liquids. The design involves materials that are compatible with plastic recycling systems and can degrade into nature if they end up in landfills. Although there are paper bottles made with plastic-PET lining, a more sustainable choice is the PEF-lined ones because they are 100% biomatter and plant-based, which makes them much better for the planet.

Life Cycle Assessment, Reusability and Recycling of Paper Bottles

Reusing a paper bottle depends on its design, material characteristics, and consumer practices. With these requirements in mind, manufacturers have had to make compromises. Opting to develop hard, moulded paper shells with linings to keep the liquids from leaking or damaging the bottle. These refillable designs, durable coatings, and rigorous testing allow them to be reused and recycled multiple times. Extending their useful life and reducing the demand for new bottles.

When reusing paper bottles, they should only be refilled with compatible liquids intended for consumption or storage. It’s advisable to avoid substances that might compromise the integrity of the lining or the safety of its contents. Proper handling of paper bottles requires that you observe best practices as a consumer. It’s imperative to prevent the paper from getting soiled, as excessive moisture contact could damage and deter the bottles’ durability. You have to inspect the protective lining for leaks or tears as this will render the bottle useless. Additionally, it’s good to not subject paper bottles to extreme heat or direct sunlight to preserve the effectiveness of the liner and overall usage. 

When cleaning, gentle and non-abrasive methods are encouraged to maintain the structural integrity of the outer fibre. Cleaning solutions that are naturally derived, can be used to remove dirt and wipe the inside, as they are considered compatible with PEF-lining. At the end of usage, responsible disposal through the appropriate recycling channel and procedure paves the way for a circular economy. 

With recycling, papers offer more perks than plastics and inner coating simply breaks away during repulping for natural or industrial composting. Paper is way easy to recycle, and can be recycled 5 to 7 times, based on an Environmental Protection Agency data. BBC reported that, for every ton of paper that is recycled, 17 tree lives are spared – along with 380 gallons of oil, three cubic yards of landfill space, 4,000 kilowatts of energy and 7,000 gallons of water. So, to save more trees, recycling is an act to take to heart. 

Another option is to split the bottles open and remove the thin inner coating from the paper. Then, discard the liner separately in composting garden waste bins. If you’re into gardening, you have the choice to add the paper bottle to your compost heap, where it will naturally decompose. Ensure to wash out any remaining contents and cut up the paper bottle into small pieces. This will help with the biodegrading process. In this case, you need not fear, as no microplastic is formed.

The lifecycle assessment (LCA) of paper bottles highlights their environmental performance. According to IFSTech, paper bottles exhibit the lowest carbon footprint, emitting only 91.9g CO2e. This impressive figure is 34% lower than a bottle made from 100% recycled plastic, which has a carbon footprint of 138.6g CO2e. More so, paper bottles are lightweight, making them more fuel-efficient during transportation. Their reduced weight means less energy is needed to transport them from production facilities to distribution centers and eventually to consumers. This characteristic further minimizes the overall carbon emissions associated with their lifecycle.

Product Safety in Paper Bottles

The inner liner plays a major role when it comes to drinks’ quality and freshness. Usually, beverages won’t deteriorate if not exposed to external matters. So, the inner is designed to prevent oxygen and moisture from permeating the bottle, to reduce exposure to air and humidity, and to ensure the product inside remains in its optimal condition for a longer period. Some paper bottles have UV-blocking properties incorporated in the outer shell, to safeguard light-sensitive products from harmful rays from exposure to sunlight. 

Paper bottle linings are treated to ensure inertness to the targeted products. And are less prone to impart unwanted flavor and odor so contents can retain their original tastes and quality. In the case of soda, a core point is the ability to withstand the forces exerted by carbonated drinks which are bottled using pressurized machines.

Stijn Fransen, Coca-Cola R&D Packaging Innovation Manager, in 2020 said; “Paper bottles must live up to the very high-quality standard because they should keep beverages fresh for months. At the same time, we need to ensure this iteration of paper bottles remains recyclable.”

Therefore, paper bottles are being made to possess insulating properties to help regulate the internal temperature of the material and keep the liquid cool or warm. As seen in the case of Coca-Cola and Absolut.

Final Thoughts

Far from disappearing, it seems that paper is entering a new golden age with the emergence of paper bottles. Although there is still a long way to go with energy, water, cost efficiencies, and especially, the massive use of trees. However, our habits can help save more trees and make paper bottles more sustainable. With responsible consumption and usage, we can contribute to a greener future through best handling practices, proper reuse, and recycling, leading to better results for our planet and forests.

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