Sustainable Packaging Series: Pulp


Whenever anyone mentions pulp as a sustainable packaging alternative people immediately think of egg boxes with rough textures and ragged edges, but this is an outdated misconception. Pulp packaging now has smooth paper like surfaces, crisp edges and thin wall sections. It is certainly much lighter than glass and half the weight of PE and can be designed to have a higher compression strength. Cost is potentially very competitive and the material has good insulative properties. It is being used in innovative ways by premium brands like Veuve Cliquot, for neat inner moulded trays for electronic goods and can be injection moulded.

All great so far, so what’s the drawback? In terms of sustainability pulp is made of wood or other organic fibres and starch which makes it recyclable and home compostable. The one CO2 drawback is the energy and time taken to dry the wet slurry into the moulded form but on-going work by companies like the Dutch business EcoXpac is addressing this and hope to reduce the CO2 impact by up to 80%.

The main challenge is the permeability of pulp. This is not a problem when the product it is holding is dry, but drinks bottles for example pose a real problem. They currently need to be lined with PU plastic so creating an unrecyclable laminate. Frugal Cup have found a way of loosely connecting the layers, so the PU Layer falls away from the pulp during the normal recycling process. Others are looking at biodegradable or inert materials to be used as an impermeable layer. Carlsberg have generated a great deal of PR around their Green Fibre Bottle concept which is looking to create a multilayer lamination with a final mineral based layer creating the necessary seal. Paper often contains minerals like chalk anyway so this layer will just mix back in with the pulp during reprocessing. The technical development is promising but as yet, it’s not in production.

Pulp poses an interesting challenge to the designer. It can be accurately moulded into attractive forms, can be coloured and labelled in different ways and inclusions can potentially be added to create a bespoke finish. Precise live hinges can be moulded in making it ideal for clam-shell packaging and the surface can be super smooth or carry moulded  textures. So initial fears of egg box finishes can be quickly dispelled. The challenge comes when you are changing the conventions of a category. Lager looks and tastes great when it is served in clear, hard shiny glass bottles but will Carlsberg be equally refreshing in an opaque, warm- to -touch pulp bottle - probably not. But it will be appealing, novel and an obvious badge of sustainability. Lightweight, cold and shiny aluminium might be a more obvious choice for a more sustainable beer bottle material, but pulp has the edge on impact simply because it is the very antithesis of glass.

 So, if a brand wants to make a clear statement about their sustainable credentials this could be the way to go. How do we elevate its unique smooth and soft sensorials in a positive and unique way and perhaps counter the obvious challenges of mouth feel in a beer bottle for example with ingenious coatings.  I am reminded of Philip Stark’s Saba TV ‘Jim Nature’ of the 1990s where he cleverly elevated humble wood chip into a dramatic design. In combination with the design we will need to embed engaging stories to elevate the role and purpose of pulp in the consumers mind and encourage reappraisal of the whole brand concept - like the use of disused coffee cups being upcycled by James Cropper in their aptly named CupCycling™. It is the role of the designer to challenge conventions and use pulp’s aesthetic and functional capabilities to create innovative eye-catching packs and impactful stories.

Nick Dormon