Circular Design for
Paper Packaging

Working Towards a Circular Economy

A circular economy is one crucial element to tackling the climate crisis and other global challenges like dwindling biodiversity. Collective action is vital to create a world that minimizes waste, conserves resources, and safeguards the environment. Changes in behavior and attitudes towards sustainability are crucial as consumer choices promote positive change across industries. We have reached a tipping point where traditional approaches are no longer sustainable, and change is needed.

Whether designing for re-use, adapting to enable recycling, or reducing the amount of packaging required—even with fiber-based materials created from renewable sources—humanity must carefully manage the collection and processing of the planet's resources and limit the waste we create to reduce our impact.

Despite consumers’ perception of paper as a more sustainable option than plastic films, paper packaging comprised over 40% of packaging waste in the EU in 2020. By committing to recycle 76% of all paper consumed by 2030, the European paper value chain renewed its pledge to contribute to the EU’s transformation towards a new model of circular economy.1

In the US, 67.9% of paper was recycled in 2022—about 49.1 million tons—enough to fill rail cars stretching from New York to Los Angeles nearly 3 times.2

(1) Source: CEPI
(2) Source: American Forest & Paper Association

Paper & Cardboard 41.1% Plastic 19.4% Glass 19.1% Wood 15.2% Metal 5% Other 0.2% Packaging Waste Generated by Material (EU, 2020)

Designing Paper & Board for Recyclability

Although consumer recyclability education and continued expansion of fiber-based recycling infrastructure are needed as well, in order to really optimize recycling rates, improved end-of-life options must be considered from the outset of the package design process. This approach prioritizes finding new ways to create sustainable, resilient, long-lasting value in the circular economy.

Paper and corrugate are highly renewable and recyclable materials, making them ideal choices for sustainable packaging. For these materials, recycling has a higher priority over composting in the Sustainability Pyramid and the Circular Economy because it allows their valuable fibers to be reclaimed for reuse. However, the remaining components of packaging that is primarily fiber-based have an impact on recyclability. Plastic film—like polyester (PE), polypropylene (PP), polyethylene (PET), or others—when laminated to paper, creates many recycling issues for paper mills. Film decreases the capacity of a paper mill‘s pulper because it takes more time for the paper to repulp due to the plastic film protecting the fibers from water during the recycling process. Polymer coatings are now being used on paper to replace plastic film, providing functionality and improving recyclability with easier processing, less plastic waste, and less contamination.

In the pulper, the water breaks the fiber bonds. The polymers follow the fiber and filler to form a new paper web in the paper machine. Repulping What Happens to Polymer Coatings in a Paper Mill
Paper Coating, Drying, & Film Forming Acrylic particles dispersed in water are applied to the surface of the paper. As the water evaporates, the particles pack more closely together. The tight packing causes the particles to deform. Polymer chains entangle across boundaries, and the particles coalesce to form a barrier film.

Replacing rigid plastic films with water-based barrier coatings provides many advantages. Such coatings are easier to recycle, extremely thin so as not to appreciably alter the flexibility or weight of the base substrate, can provide specific functionality (oil & grease resistance, oxygen and moisture barriers, heat seal, etc.) and are easy to apply in paper production and conversion.


Choosing the Right Paper

The selection of the right paper substrate will have a major role in determining the final barrier properties of the complete packaging structure. Follow these guidelines to assure the best possible outcome.

Look for grades with an extremely smooth, closed, water-resistant surface. This keeps the coating oriented on the surface where it provides the strongest barrier.

Favor papers with the lowest porosity possible. The higher the barrier requirement, the lower the porosity should be.

Basis Weight
High fiber content in the paper will provide the physical strengths needed for both converting and end use. Stiffness and puncture strength are key.

Ensure the paper can be folded without damaging its surface. The combined flexibility of the paper and coating system is essential to preserving barrier properties.


One Example of How Michelman Is Driving Circular Design Through Innovation

Striving to transform the flexible food packaging industry, Michelman collaborated with a machine manufacturer and a substrate producer in our quest to drive greater circularity through design. Combining the expertise of Michelman, BOBST, and UPM Speciality Papers, a new innovative solution for the creation of high-barrier, fiber-based food packaging was developed. The result is oneBARRIER FibreCycle, created in response to increasing pressures from legislative bodies to move away from plastics. Certified 94% recyclable by PTS, this solution is compatible with existing paper recycling streams.

For this collaboration, BOBST provided the metallization process, and UPM provided the appropriate substrate. Michelman created a new coating system for paper packaging that can match the high barrier performance of current multi-material film laminations. The design of this coating system revolves around a next-generation multifunctional primer which enables metallization of the core substrate, imparts increased oxygen, mineral oil, and moisture vapor barriers, and increases resistance to oil and grease. Effective at low coat weights, it can be applied on standard form, fill, and seal equipment.

6 5 4 3 2 1
  1. OPV: VaporCoat® 1300 is overprinted to protect the surface and enhance MVTR under tropical conditions.
  2. Ink
  3. Substrate: UPM Solide Lucent™, a responsibly sourced and recyclable kraft paper, is an excellent foundation for achieving optimum barrier properties.
  4. Primer: Michem® Flex B1002, is a metallization primer that also provides oxygen, aroma, and mineral oil barriers, oil & grease resistance, and print receptivity.
  5. Metallization: via BOBST AluBond® vacuum deposition.
  6. Heat Seal: The Michem® Flex HS family enables airtight sealing for a range of seal initiation temperatures.

Collaboration is Key

Circular design and collaboration are key to drive a shift from linear, single-use products to circular, fully recyclable alternatives. This example demonstrates that creating a world which minimizes waste, conserves resources, and protects the environment is entirely attainable. This can be achieved when consumers, governments, NGOs, brands, and value chain members work together to put sustainability first.