By Jan H. Schut
If plastics processors haven’t noticed paper bottles yet, they should, because paper bottles popped from nowhere four years ago to create a whole new market for paper. Four years ago, two small entrepreneurial companies outside of the packaging industry separately launched patented but similar paper bottles almost simultaneously. These weren’t folded paper cartons, but molded clamshells shaped like glass or plastic bottles. Paper bottles started with milk in local outlets and now package detergent, wine, and cat litter for mass markets, potentially challenging glass and plastic, though plastic is minimally involved for lining and closure.
GreenBottle Ltd., originally in Woodbridge, Suffolk, U.K., a startup in March, 2006 (which went into voluntary bankruptcy in February 2014), and Ecologic Brands Inc., Oakland, CA (www.ecologicbrands.com), a start-up in 2008, thermoformed half bottle shells out of paper pulp using vacuum, heat and pressure, then glued the halves together around a thin plastic liner, welded to the bottle opening. Paper is the mechanical support with a thin film lining.
GreenBottle founder and inventor, Martin Myerscough, got his idea for paper bottles from a paper-mache-covered balloon his son made as a craft project. Ecologic founder and inventor, Julie Corbett, got her idea from the molded recycled fiber tray her iPhone was packed in. Molds for GreenBottle’s patent-applied-for technology (U.S. Pat. Applic. # 20130213597) were developed with RTS Flexible Systems Ltd. in Manchester, U.K., now part of Brooks Automation Inc. (www.brooks.com). Molds for Ecologics’ patented technology (U.S. Pat. # 8430262) were developed with DW Product Development Inc., Ottawa, Ont. (www.dwcanada.com).
The basic technology isn’t new. Wood fiber has been pressure formed with two-sided molds into smooth paper plates for over 100 years, but compressing paper pulp hard enough to fuse it into a rigid bottle is new. There are three types of pulp forming. Type 1, slush molding, forms rough parts like heavy walled corner protectors. Type 2, transfer molding, forms thinner parts like packing trays, egg cartons, and cup holders. Both use single-sided vacuum molds to dewater pulp. Type 3, pressure or thermoforming, makes paper plates, clamshells and some paper bottles using two-sided molds. One side is fine mesh with vacuum; the other side applies heat and pressure to fuse fibers and increase stiffness.
GreenBottle used virgin paper fibers for milk bottles and recycled kraft liner shavings for wine bottles. Ecologic uses 100% recycled paper for all its bottles—70% recycled kraft cardboard, 30% recycled newspaper. (kraft paper has longer fibers than newspaper.) After use, paper bottles from both companies can be pulled apart and recycled with paper again. Non-barrier film liners can be recycled with grocery bags; barrier pouches from wine bottles cannot. There aren’t enough paper bottles in the market yet to know how many consumers will figure the recycling out and actually do it. But even if they don’t, paper bottles are distinctive and have boosted sales significantly in market tests.
GreenBottle’s paper bottles were first market tested in 2009 for low fat milk from Marybelle Dairy, Walpole, Suffolk, U.K. (www.marybelle.co.uk). Then in January 2011, Asda Stores Ltd. (www.asda.com), a supermarket chain belonging to Walmart (corporate.walmart.com), tested GreenBottle paper bottles for milk from Trewithen Dairy, Lostwithiel, Cornwall, U.K. (www.trewithendairy.co.uk). The test ran for 18 months with a 200% increase in sales, GreenBottle said. But Trewithin didn’t commercialize the bottles because without Asda’s subsidy, they were too expensive vs. HDPE.
Ecologic’s first market test of paper bottles was for organic skim milk from Straus Family Creamery Inc., Petaluma, CA (www.strausmilk.com), in January 2010 for Whole Foods markets (www.wholefoodsmarket.com) in northern California. It took almost a year to develop half-gallon bottles shaped like Straus’s returnable glass bottles. The test ran six weeks with 72% increase in skim milk sales, Ecologic’s Corbett says. Straus didn’t commercialize the bottle because it requires a pouch filling line, which they don’t have. For the market test, paper bottles were hand filled.
In March 2011, Seventh Generation Inc., Burlington, VT (www.seventhgeneration.com), market tested “4X” concentrated laundry detergent in 50 oz. Ecologic paper bottles also for Whole Foods Markets. These became the first commercial paper bottles in the world, now available nationally in many retailers including Target (www.target.com) stores. Seventh Generation also sells 4X detergent in 60 oz. plastic bottles. In 2011, The Winning Combination Inc., Winnipeg, Manitoba (www.winning-combination.com), launched Bodylogix whey protein in molded paper canisters from Ecologic, sold by Walgreen (www.walgreens.com), General Nutrition Corp. (www.gnc.com), The Vitamin Shoppe (www.vitaminshoppe.com), and others.
In May 2011, Tetra Pak International S.A., Lausanne, Switzerland (www.tetrapak.com), commercialized a paper bottle for shelf stable milk with flat sides, rounded corners, and shoulders called “Evero.” Tetra Pak claims 14 patents on it for things like filling machines and injection molded closures that fuse the top, sleeve and neck. Unlike GreenBottle and Ecologic paper bottles, Evero bottles are plastic coated so they don’t look or feel like paper, but Tetra Pak says they can still be recycled with paper. Evero bottles are commercial for shelf stable milk in Russia, Spain, Portugal, and Brazil, Tetra Pak says. The company also claims its 10,000 pack/hour filling line costs 25%-30% less to buy and run than conventional aseptic pouching.
MORE PAPER BOTTLES ON THE WAY
Paper wine bottles came next and were much harder to make than milk bottles. In November 2013, wine maker Truett-Hurst Inc., Healdsburg, CA (www.truetthurstinc.com), launched Paperboy wine in GreenBottle paper bottles shaped like Bordeaux wine bottles. Paperboy is distributed by Vons stores in California, part of Safeway Inc. (www.safeway.com), and by selected other Safeway stores. Truett-Hurst had a seven-year bottle supply contract with GreenBottle, which moved paper bottle molds from Turkey to Spain and film liner manufacture and bottle assembly from Trewithin to a plant in St. Helens, Merseyside, U.K.
But GreenBottle, the pioneer which sustained the longest development period, had difficulty gearing up for Truett-Hurst’s volume. On February 28, 2014, GreenBottle went into administration under Begbies Traynor LLP, Preston, Lancashire (www.begbies-traynorgroup.com), which sold GreenBottle’s assembly machinery, molds, and IP assets to Depirus Ltd., a new company set up in February, which plans to relaunch paper wine bottles. Truett-Hurst reported a $400,000 loss on GreenBottle’s insolvency.
In April Truett-Hurst, announced a new three-year supply contract with Ecologic for paper wine bottles, renewable for another two years, and market tested Ecologic bottles in Canada. Ecologic had already raised over $20 million in financing and moved into a 60,000 sq. ft. plant in Manteca, CA, in 2013 to mold pulp bottles and liners and assemble them. The company uses three patent-applied-for liner variations, including thermoforming film to fit the bottle. In April 2014, Kruger Inc., Montreal, Quebec (www.kruger.com), a paper producer and recycler, invested $1 million in Ecologic with the right to produce paper bottles in Canada.
The difficulty of making 750 ml paper wine bottles is getting them rigid enough to stack. The wine industry norm is four cases high on a pallet. It is also hard to match filling line speeds for glass bottles, but Truett-Hurst says Ecologic’s paper bottle is close to doing both. The paper wine bottle is also 80% lighter than glass, so trucks can carry more cases. The latest paper bottle development is the first all paper bottle with a paper lid and no plastic lining. Nestle Purina PetCare Co., St. Louis, MO (www.purina.com), launched all paper jugs for 6 and 12 lb sizes of Renew cat litter in PetSmart Inc. (www.petsmart.com) stores on January 2, replacing plastic F style jugs, though plastic jugs are still used for 20 lb. sizes.
Major packaging companies are watching paper bottles closely. In 2011, Pepsico Inc., Purchase, NY (www.pepsico.com), applied for a patent on paper bottle technology (WO 2013/192260) that combines reheat/stretch blow molding with pulp forming. The patent application describes arranging wet fiber sheets in a spiral something like paper mailing tubes, then pushing the bottom of the tube in to form a stable base. An injection molded preform is heated and blown inside the wet paper bottle to squeeze water out, replacing matched metal molds, the patent says. But it’s not clear whether Pepsi’s paper bottle would be recyclable.
The earliest molded paper bottle is probably from Kao Corp., Tokyo, Japan (www.kao.com/jp), a century old cosmetics and chemical company with patented technology for a pulp bottle (U.S. Pat. # 6899793), issued in 2005. Kao used it to mold plastic-coated paper canisters for cleaning powder, which were launched in Japan and won prizes. The patent describes inserting an “expandable pressing member” into a pulp-lined cavity and filling it with liquid to compress the pulp and squeeze water out. But apparently this didn’t exert enough pressure to fuse fibers into a viable container. The packages were later dropped, but could be reintroduced. There are also unresolved patent issues (mostly about the paper bottle closure) between Ecologic and Greenbottle’s successor. Hopefully these can be worked out because the marketplace would be better served by more players than fewer, and there are already a number of directions that paper bottles could take.