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Time marches on! And so does packaging science
The brightest spot in the pulp and paper spectrum in recent years has been paper-based packaging. This has made the makers of paperboard and corrugated containers very happy. But they would do well to keep looking over their shoulders. Why? Because just as corrugated containers replaced wooden boxes many decades ago, scientists will inevitably find new ways to package goods without using paper-based materials.

According to the New York Times, "A growing number of entrepreneurs and researchers are working to turn foods like mushrooms, kelp, milk and tomato peels into edible--if not always palatable--replacements for plastics, coatings and other packaging materials." The Times article goes on to note that these efforts come as food and beverage companies are not only looking for biodegradable containers--Nestlé Waters and Danone recently announced a joint effort to make water bottles from wood fiber--but also joining in the efforts by governments, restaurateurs and consumers to reduce waste, which contributes to greenhouse gases. A lot of that waste is discarded paperboard packaging. And even diligent recycling programs like those for OCC can capture only a fraction of what is discarded.

The Merck Forest and Farmland Center, a nonprofit environmental group in Vermont, supports itself by selling maple syrup. For the past two years, it has sent its syrup out in glass bottles cradled in a molded material made from mushrooms. One official said, "You can literally break it up and put it in a compost pile, then scatter it around your rose bushes."

For several years, governments have quietly bankrolled efforts to develop packaging from food products. The European Union underwrote a project to develop coatings from whey and potato proteins. The US Department of Agriculture has tried to build interest in a milk-protein-based bioplastic. Big companies like PepsiCo and Nestlé have become greatly interested in more environmentally friendly products. They ae encouraged by consumers who are increasingly aware that the packaging of the products they eat and drink can damage the environment.

The hunt is on for packaging alternatives that won't end up in landfills--and are benign if they are dumped. Keep looking over your shoulder, box makers.

Chuck Swann is Senior Editor of Paperitalo Publications.
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