Danish brewer Carlsberg was an early adopter with this prototype paper beer bottle. Image: Carlsberg
Inside Paboco’s Quest for the Ideal Paper Bottle
Tim Silbermann believes in paper bottles. The 33-year-old German is the newly appointed CEO of Denmark’s Paper Bottle Co. (Paboco), which itself recently gained a new majority owner. And now he gets to manage the next stages of expansion for this emerging product category.
On Oct. 23, Austrian packaging giant Alpla-Werke Alwin Lehner GmbH & Co. KG announced it had bought out all the shares of its equal partner, Swedish paper packaging material developer Billerud AB, giving it more than a 90 percent stake in the 4-year-old firm, Silbermann explained in an Oct. 27 phone interview. The founding family of the former Danish startup ecoXpac A/S still retains a minority share in Paboco.
Silbermann, who earned a master’s degree in engineering from Munich University of Applied Sciences, first began working on paper bottle technology in 2018 while employed at Alpla –– a year before Alpla and Billerud jointly founded Paboco in Slangerup, Denmark, roughly 30 km northwest of Copenhagen. Silbermann moved to Denmark in January 2020, initially overseeing product development for the fledgling firm. This past May he was promoted to chief technical officer, and just six months later was named CEO.
“This product, this story, this vision is very dear to my heart,” he said. As Paboco CEO he will oversee the company’s next major step, the building of a new, commercial-scale plant in Denmark to produce fully recyclable paper bottles by the end of 2024. The firm has not yet selected an exact location, but Silbermann said he expects it to be in the greater Copenhagen area, in part because the region has a deep talent base of potential employees. Paboco employs 18 people now and expects that to nearly double by the end of next year.
Preparing to scale up
Newly appointed Paboco CEO Tim Silbermann has been working on developing paper bottles since 2018, when he was with Alpla Group. Image: Alpla und Paboco
He said Paboco is looking forward to shifting from start-up mode to a small scale-up and then to commercial-scale production. Current plans call for the new plant to be operational and begin gradual production by the end of 2024, with the capacity to produce about 20 million bottles a year by 2026. Much, he said, will depend on market growth and technology advancement.
But once the first big plant is humming, it will essentially be a “copy/paste” exercise to duplicate that production capacity in a new location. If consumer demand dictates, then Paboco may decide to site a second plant in another European country.
“It’s not the goal to ship all the bottles we make out of Denmark but to get close to our customers and their filling lines.”
Paboco’s early customers comprise what it calls its “Paboco Pioneer Community” and include well-known brands such as Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola Co., Danish brewer Carlsberg, spirits maker Absolut Vodka, and cosmetics maker L’Oréal.
Tackling various challenges
All future generations of Paboco bottles will have paper necks, and the firm is working with Blue Ocean Closures to also develop all-fiber caps. Image: Alpla und Paboco
The challenge for all paper bottle makers is to create an aesthetically pleasing and structurally stable container that also provides the performance properties necessary when it comes to moisture and vapor barrier protection –– all while being eco-friendly and not disrupting existing recycling streams.
Critics question why one would want to replace highly recyclable, all-PET bottles with a dual-material alternative that potentially complicates the recycling process. Companies such as Paboco –– as well as Jabil Inc. with its Ecologic brand and others –– want to vastly reduce the consumption of fossil-based, single-use plastics and replace them with fully bio-based and recyclable paper bottles.
“With the bottle configuration [that Paboco has] now,” said Silbermann, “we are targeting the beauty and fabric and home-care segment, but continuous development will also enable us to bring our next-generation bottle into further applications, such as beverages. We are happy that Alpla is fully committed to supporting us on this journey.”
Among Paboco’s more recent advances is the development of an all-fiber neck for its bottles, replacing the previous plastic neck. And it now is using a very thin HDPE barrier for the bottle’s liner. HDPE does not provide an oxygen barrier, however, so, while it is effective for many of Paboco’s current target applications, it is not suitable for beer or dairy, for example, he said.
“We form the paper shell first and then we form the liner in a second step,” he said, explaining that it could best be described as being similar to a laminating process.
Paboco previously had run trials using a 100 percent bio-based polyethylene furanoate (PEF) film barrier. It still is partnering with Dutch renewable chemistry startup Avantium NV to explore the possibilities of PEF resin made using Avantium’s so-called YXY technology. This process catalytically converts plant-based fructose syrup from corn and wheat sugars into PEF. When using PEF one needs to use injection stretch blow molding to orient the molecules in order to obtain the desired barrier properties.
Paboco’s current preferred process does not require this step. Still, Silbermann said his firm continues to explore various bio-based and barrier materials, including PEF. And Paboco is also working with Swedish startup Blue Ocean Closures on development of fiber-based caps and closures. (See related video.)
Boosting the paper vs. plastic percentage
Paboco’s first-generation bottle, minus the cap, comprised about 60/40 percent paper vs. plastic. Those early bottles still had a plastic neck. Its latest products have now adopted all paper necks, and this helps to move that ratio to closer to 80/20 or 85/15 percent in favor of paper. And further development will reduce the plastics content even further, he said.
Absolut Vodka this summer introduced a 500-ml Paboco bottle that is 57 percent paper with an integrated lining made of what it called “recyclable plastic” that reportedly is a polyethylene naphthalate (PEN) resin. The spirits maker says its paper bottles are eight times lighter than the glass alternative and are also easier to carry.
Absolut, which is testing the product in the Manchester, England, market, claims customers can recycle the packaging “as paper” through normal household waste. This gets complicated, however, Silbermann admits, as each country and region tends to have its own rules as to how they define “paper” and what can enter the paper recycling stream. In Germany, for example, a product must be 95 percent paper in order to be allowed into the paper recycling stream, while in France, anything over 50 percent qualifies. So each market has to be addressed separately.
Silbermann said the outer, uncoated paper shell of their bottle can be separated fairly easily from the barrier liner and can then be reclaimed via a normal paper repulping process.
The biggest challenges now facing Paboco, he said, involve proving it can scale its manufacturing process and continuing to advance its mission toward creating a 100 percent bio-based, fully recyclable bottle.
When it comes to preparing its pulp, Paboco uses traditional pulping equipment. To make its bottles, it uses its own process, applying custom-made technology that has been devised in conjunction with its machinery partners. It does not make its own machines or use any standard plastics processing equipment.
To produce the barrier liners, meanwhile, Silbermann said Paboco adopted a process used in another industry and reconfigured it for its specific application.
He says it is Paboco’s goal to get its products to a competitive price. “Our technology is a couple of years old. It’s clear we cannot compete with 50-year-old technology yet.” The price of its bottles will come down as production scales up.
Still, he stressed, “We don’t just want to be a replacement. We want to bring additional value if you choose to go with Paboco and a paper bottle.” He sees the potential for customers to benefit both from improved life cycle analysis data for its products, and from sustainability-focused branding opportunities.