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Finnish recyclable food packaging innovation attracts worldwide interest

A Finnish paper mill is making inroads in the food packaging market with a new innovation, a moisture and grease-resistant disposable paperboard that is 100% renewable. Custom orders are already flooding in from, for example, Norwegian frozen fish companies and German chocolate makers.

Kotkamillsin pahvimukeja
Disposable cups made from hometown Kotkamills' new plastics-free cartonboard are on trial at the Tall Ships Race in Kotka. Image: Satu Krautsuk / Yle

Kotkamills, a wood and paper producer from southeast Finland, has received certification for using a new grade of plastics-free paperboard it has developed for food packaging. A disposable coffee cup without the standard polyethylene coating - making it 100% recyclable - has also passed all of the requisite tests, but is still awaiting certification.  

The mill will start commercial production of the new paperboard, as test orders totalling 300 tonnes are already on the books. Companies from Finland, Norway, Sweden, Germany and England have shown interest in the more eco-friendly packaging option's potential.

Unlike other generally used plastic-coated boards, the new barrier board from Kotkamills can be recycled and repulped without any special measures. A chemical used in the manufacturing process makes the paperboard grease and water-resistant, replacing the polymers that have been entrusted to do the job in the past. The innovation also eliminates fluorochemicals from the packaging. 

"Fluorochemicals are still used widely in fast food packaging, even though they have been shown to cause cancer.  Our products are moisture-resistant without presenting a health hazard," says Kotkamills director Markku Hämäläinen.

First of its kind

Pöyry, an industrial consulting company that assists companies in the Finnish forest cluster, estimated in the spring that the packaging board developed in Kotka is the first of its kind, even if other paper grades that are easier on the environment already exist.

The trick is coming up with a coating agent that does not contain plastics. The new coating solution has to keep things watertight and withstand the packaging manufacture process. Maintaining durable seams that don't tear during use is also an issue.

Hämäläinen says that international interest in the packaging has been surprising, as it has unexpectedly surpassed orders for the disposable coffee cups.

"The last test results [for the cups] will be clear in a few weeks, but they have already passed a dozen other ones that are necessary for certification," says Hämäläinen, who says big customers like McDonalds and Starbucks require that all of tests be completed.

Standing up to tests

The Finnish Broadcasting Company Yle tested a few of the Kotkamills coffee cups with different drinks. The cups kept their shape for every beverage except spirits, but only 39 percent of current paper cups can hold strong alcohol for more than a few hours before becoming misshapen and leaking. Cups with soft drinks and coffee with cream held up for over two days.

"No one actually stores drinks in cups like that for hours at a time," the Kotkamills CEO commented.

A batch of 50,000 of the disposable coffee cups is currently in use at the Tall Ship Races and Maritime Festival in Kotka. The waste will be collected and repulped for further use.

"It can be used to make copy paper, for example, once the printing ink has been removed. It contains a large volume of short fibre, so it is well suited for reuse as paper," says Hämäläinen.

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