Liquid Thinking

Paper bottles

Where are they?

23rd November 2022

With consumer scrutiny of brand’s environmental commitments at an all-time high, producers large and small have been keen to demonstrate their desire to do better. One of the most visible symbols of this for shoppers is the packaging itself. Despite a lot of fanfare surrounding the launch of paper bottles from several high-profile brands, few have actually made it to market. Why?

There’s only so many times something can be tipped as the thing of the future…. without you actually seeing it. Betamax, 3D TVs, Blu-ray, Tidal Music…. I’m sure there’s more, but I’ve forgotten what they are. 

And so it was that in the world of drinks, paper bottles were touted as the solution to the packaging woes of some of the major drinks brands; an eco-unicorn in a sea of planet damaging plastic and glass. Able to be more widely recycled, lighter and less costly to transport, and perhaps most powerfully, a visible symbol to consumers of brand’s desire to do better, they seemed to tick all the boxes. And yet, despite much fanfare, few of those announced have ever made it to market. At least not at scale.

The birth of the paper bottle

It’s been a long ride for this ‘revolutionary’ format. Though Diageo has arguably made the biggest noise so far with its announcement in 2020 that it had created the world’s first 100% paper-based spirits bottle, its origins date back much earlier.

Suffolk-based entrepreneur Martin Myerscough has been working on the format for close to twenty years. His bag-in-a-carton wine format, GreenBottle was trialled in 2007 in an Asda store in the UK, and 2009 in a Co-op store, before a UK rollout in 2011. But then it seemed to fall off the map.

In 2013, Californian wine producer Truett-Hurst claimed to be the first to market paper wine bottle – again designed by GreenBottle – launched under its Paperboy brand. Made from compressed recycled paper and printed with natural inks, it was said to take just 15% of the energy needed to make a glass wine bottle.

Launched across the US through supermarket chain Safeway, a glance at the brand’s website shows its no longer for sale. A deeper dive reveals that though $250,000 of stock  was sold in the first 60 days, it lost half a million dollars in 2015 and $800,000 in 2018, according to Wine Uncorked.  The title states that faults with the plastic liner were probably to blame, vastly shortening the wine’s shelf life, and causing the wine to oxidise. In fact GreenBottle filed for bankruptcy in 2014, before being bought out.

Diageo leads the way

Fast forward to 2020 and the format seemingly made a comeback with the Diageo proposition… a 100% plastic free paper-based spirits bottle, created in partnership with the British packaging company, Pulpex. Made entirely from sustainably sourced wood and said to be fully recyclable through mainstream waste channels, the key talking point was that it had the potential to go mainstream.

Diageo announced that the design was scalable and would go on sale in early 2021, containing Johnnie Walker whisky. Yet, that never happened. It’s now slated for a 2023 launch.

Since then, a number of spirits brands look to have stolen a march on this exclusive, vying to get their bottles on shelves first. They include modern calvados brand Avallen’s Frugal Bottle, developed in partnership with Frugalpac. Launched in July, it’s made from 94% recycled paperboard (though it contains a food-grade plastic pouch), weighs 85g and equates to 20% of the emissions of a standard glass bottle to produce. Hurray, this one is available to buy, but only through Harvey Nichols.

Next up, in August came gin brand Greenall’s. Again by Frugalpac, its bottle has a carbon footprint that is 84% less than glass, at 91.9kg/CO2e per bottle instead of 558.2kg/CO2e. Hurray! We’ve found it for sale in Sainsbury’s, though that’s online rather than in-store. And then came Gyre & Gimble Gin and Bacchus Wine; both packs are available through specialist retailers. Other brands to have also dipped a toe in the water include Absolut Vodka, Coca Cola and Carlsberg.

Real change or unfulfillable promise?

So momentum is growing, but that’s not exactly mainstream is it? Is the dream a widely available paper bottle that eliminates the need for non-sustainable materials at-scale, an unfulfillable promise?

Being technical, none of these packs offer an entirely sustainable option due to their reliance on a plastic interior. After all, liquid and wood pulp on their own are not great bedfellows. And that’s a problem. One could argue that the replacement of glass bottles with a format that instead puts more non-recyclable plastic out into the world, is not exactly responsible, nor environmentally friendly. Granted however, that’s still likely a better solution to single-use glass.

Secondly, a number of brands have positioned paper bottles as a replacement for PET packs. However, PET can be recycled to be used again as another PET pack. So, is the use of a non-recyclable or not widely recyclable material in the paper bottle linings actually worse?

We should note that the leading producers of paper bottles – both GreenBottle and Pulpex – are actually a little vague about what plastics they’re actually using in their linings. Pulpex says it doesn’t use plastic at all, but a resin, which it claims will naturally degrade. However, some paper packs such as those used by some soft drinks brands, are actually effectively a PET bottle, but with a cardboard coating; again, hardly the gold standard in sustainability.

Scale it up

There’s also serious doubt as to whether these packs are scalable. And without scale and the ability to entirely replace unsustainable formats, their eco impact is minimal. With Diageo still experiencing issues getting its pack to market, do smaller brands stand a chance? And finally, how sustainable is paper/ wood pulp as a material anyway? The only way the format can hold water from an eco point of view is if all materials are recycled. The moment a tree is cut down to produce one, is the moment it starts to lack credibility.

The biggest strength of a paper bottle from a branding strategy point of view lies in its symbolism. Cutting through far-off emissions targets, sourcing claims or other pledges that consumers can find hard to either verify or visualise, means that if a paper bottle can have a solid eco-claim, because consumers can touch, hold and recycle it, there is potency.

Brands should be commended for looking at the use of materials and packs that are better for the planet. But, until the format can fully live up to the claims put forward by brand owners and become more widely available, reputationally, they may do more harm than good.

Interested in finding out more about what this might mean for you and your business?

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