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Ahlstrom-Munksjö to develop a new flexible paper-based packaging material

Together with five European partners, Finland-headed specialty pulp, paper, and fibre producer Ahlstrom-Munksjö Oyj is working to develop, at lab scale, a new flexible paper-based packaging solution. The objective is to develop a renewable, biodegradable and recyclable flexible paper‐based packaging material, by replacing the need for aluminium foil or fossil-derived plastic currently used as barriers in packaging materials.

On paper applying a barrier coating sounds straightforward, in practice it is a highly synchronised precision process with exacting tolerance demands.

On paper applying a barrier coating sounds straightforward, in practice it is a highly synchronised precision process with exacting tolerance demands.

The work is part of a European Union (EU) co-funded research and implementation (R&I) project called Sherpack – “Innovative structured polysaccharides‐based materials for recyclable and biodegradable flexible packaging.

Together with five partners, the overall objective is to develop a renewable, biodegradable and recyclable flexible paper‐based packaging material, that can be easily converted by heat‐sealing and folding, with improved stiffness and grip, in order to replace materials such as plastics or aluminium foil currently used on the market by an advanced biomaterial.

Flexible packaging is widely used in food wrapping, pet food and non-food packaging, and numerous other end-use applications that can be seen on supermarket shelves. Usually flexible packaging contains a plastic film and/or an aluminium foil, creating an excellent barrier to water vapour, oxygen, and contaminants.

The downside in using plastic and aluminium barriers relates to its end of the life-cycle when the packaging is discarded. Under some waste management regimes, it ends up as fuel in energy recovery plants but in most cases it ends up going to landfill.

Coming out in the wash, plastic and aluminium foil reject from a paper mill that uses post-consumer recycled carton packing and paper as feedstock. The material is used on site as fuel for the process steam boiler.

Horizon 2020 funding

There is a significant market potential. The size of the flexible plastic packaging market for dry food applications in Europe alone is, according to market research consultancy Smithers Pira, estimated to worth around EUR 3.7 billion annually and is expected to grow.

Launched in June 2017, the four-year project has received funding from the Bio-Based Industries Joint Undertaking (BBI JU) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme call for projects on “Advanced biomaterials for smart food packaging”.

The consortium consists of three industrial partners and three research centres. Apart from Ahlstrom-Munksjö, the former includes global agri-business Cargill Inc-., and Norway-headed speciality pulp, biochemicals and ingredients major Borregaard ASA.

The research centres are Instituto Technológico del Embalaje, Transporte y Logística (ITENE) from Spain, Istituto per la Sintesi Organica e la Fotoreattività National Research Council of Italy (ISOF-CNR) and France-based Centre Technique du Papier (CTP) that also is the lead partner.

 Food packaging needs to be both functional and innovative, and to offer good end‐of‐life alternatives. Sherpack aims at developing two “proof‐of‐concept” for such packaging materials, through three major innovations that will be brought together to offer new functionalities:

  • wet‐lamination of a thin layer of fibre specialty on the cellulosic substrate,
  • formulation and coating of a biodegradable polymer waterborne emulsion,
  • specific design, formulation and printing of a polysaccharides grid to improve the grip and stiffness

Value-chain of the Sherpack project (image courtesy Sherpack).

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