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PaperFoam: Eco-friendly packaging solutions

For our series ‘From Factory to Trees', we interview several of our partners in the packaging chain. This time we had the pleasure to interview Willem Derkman, CEO at PaperFoam. He started as an intern in 2002, became design and molds manager and after being responsible for global sales, he became co-director three years ago.

PaperFoam started as a research project within AVEBE, developing a technology to make packaging via injection molding from potato starch. That patent had been discontinued and taken over by Vertis, which used to be an IT company. PaperFoam became an independent entity in 1998, and started to do the packaging for consumer electronics. In 2007 CD packaging was added to the sales. The company was reinvented in 2009 and again created more sustainable consumer packaging, including packaging for electronics and egg cartons. We operate in the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, North America (North Carolina), and Malaysia, which is largest in terms of machinery.

1. PaperFoam offers eco-friendly packaging solutions for the retail sector. Over the last 2 years, Corona has obviously changed this sector. What have you noticed?

The company experienced a reasonable growth of 25% per year, which has stabilised due to COVID. This is because many of our products are sold in stores that had to be closed, for example stores at the airport. We noticed that several sectors were growing, such as the eggs sector and the router business in America, yet in Asia the revenue declined considerably. So from a global perspective, the regional impact was clearly visible due to store closures.

Currently we are not yet involved in the online retail business that much, as we do not have the right channels for it. However, nowadays you can see the transition from plastic to PaperFoam. There is a push from consumers towards companies that they should undertake more sustainable actions.

2. At ZeroPackaging, sustainability is the main focus. What’s PaperFoam’s vision regarding sustainability?

PaperFoam is fully compostable, the paper is recyclable and during the production process the carbon footprint is very low. Based on LCA studies, it is visible that PaperFoam has a positive contribution to the footprint of more and more companies, namely a decrease in CO2 emission of 60%-85%.

The company is set up for sustainability and a sustainable future. Therefore, our mission for the upcoming four years is to replace plastic packaging with PaperFoam. For example, when developing packaging, we will never add more plastics to add more functionalities; we prioritise on improving the sustainability level of the packaging, not the functionalities. And this resonates with all of PaperFoam’s employees. We have the ambition to establish sustainability and improve the world.

3. Can you describe a project in which you have been involved with sustainability?

One of our clients is Pukka, which is a tea brand that is highly focused on sustainability and environmental impact. They focus on all recyclable packaging, and no use of oil based ingredients. Our packaging is a perfect fit to meet these sustainable goals.

Companies mostly look at circularity. It is easy to communicate and can prevent a damaging brand reputation. I am not saying to push plastics off the market, but it is about limiting the use to when it is only functionally applicable. Single-use plastics have no added functionality. Furthermore, if you do need to use plastic, use the most durable option.

4. What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about sustainability in the retail sector?

The biggest misconception is greenwashing, as it is an indirect method that does not solve the problem. Like forestation, does something truly add a sustainable value to the world, or is it merely a solution to force the green brand image? Companies should look at the broader picture.

5. Which current technology or trend do you think has the most positive impact on long-term sustainability?

A lot of the ‘new’ technologies already existed for a while. For instance, Pulp packaging which is a strong alternative for plastic packaging. The recycling stream is closed and it uses a trusted technology. There is a lot to be gained from the increasing development in the usage of waste materials. Instead of exploiting new raw materials, it is possible to produce the same products with recycled materials.

6. What do you think the world will look like 10 years from now when it comes to sustainability? And what do you hope it will look like?

I hope that everyone lives up to what was discussed in Glasgow - however it remains a very difficult discussion. The consumer is now forcing governments and businesses to become more sustainable. For instance, Shell is challenged to achieve certain goals. It is because of the critical consumer that governments are more focused on sustainability. And one way to increase the level of sustainability is by using recycled materials. The costs of producing CO2 emissions is too low - the price would be far more fair once it has been increased. And then simultaneously the future would become more sustainable.

7. What is PaperFoam’s role in this?

We are going to replace a lot of plastic packaging during the increasing sustainability of the future. Currently we have four production locations, and in the future we wish to have more production locations that are closer to our customers. Local production is the most sustainable way to do business. Furthermore, we want to have a recycle stream where we re-collect used PaperFoam packaging.

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