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The Absolut Company Pursues Paper Bottles: Q&A with Louise Werner

The Absolut Company Pursues Paper Bottles: Q&A with Louise Werner At first, the idea of placing alcoholic liquids inside paper packaging doesn’t make sense. The mind reels. For the Absolut Company, however, paper bottles represent a promising opportunity.

The Pernod Ricard spirit brand company, which owns Absolut Vodka, Malibu, and Kahlúa, intends to revolutionize the packaging industry with a truly circular system.

“Fiber technology is interesting to us — it’s a renewable material and much lighter than glass,” says Louise Werner, director of the Absolut Company’s future packaging team. The Stockholm-based company is part of Paboco, a collaborative paper bottle development project.

Recently we caught up with Werner to gain an inside look at how the company is pursuing a fully recyclable paper bottle for their products.

How did the Absolut Company get involved with the Paboco paper bottle project?

Paboco is owned by two companies, BillerudKorsnäs and Alpla. We’d been in contact with Swedish grocery company BillerudKorsnäs for almost five years to explore fiber technology. Then the timing was right, they became joint owners of Paboco, and set up this pioneering community.

We’re excited to be working alongside Carlsberg, L’Oréal, and the Coca-Cola Company. Four global brands are coming together to make the impossible possible. I think if anyone can do it, we can, together.

What are the advantages of a paper bottle for your company?

Sustainability is the main driver for us. Then, from a business point of view, having a lighter packaging will facilitate transportation throughout our whole value chain.

This sustainable packaging will also present a completely new packaging experience to our customers. Paper can do things that glass and aluminum can’t.

Like what?

If you think about origami or luxury paper packaging, you have the strength of the fibers but also the flexibility. There are intricate details.

We had a first small iteration with consumers this summer at a festival in Sweden to get a feeling for how our consumers will react. The tactile element was exciting to them. It feels quite natural: “I drink milk from paper packaging and juice from a paper carton.” What we have is conversational: Paper and liquid.

Could you walk us through the challenges involved?

The biggest challenge is finding the barrier solution. We will innovate in increments. We’ll start with all the strength and stability coming from the paper structure, and we’ll have a thin PET liner. The next step will to be to use a PEF liner, then we’ll move to a coating, and then we’ll replace that with one that’s completely bio-based.

Also, we have an alcohol-based product. We’ve started with a pre-mixed cocktail, which has an ABV of 4.5%. But it’s carbonated, and that presents a whole different set of challenges. We’ll know more this spring when we have our first prototype to do stability testing.

Another challenge is that it won’t have the same shelf life. We have no idea what those calculations will be. And of course this packaging will be more expensive than our normal solutions to start, but we have the scalability component with Alpla for this project.

What’s the eventual end-of-life vision for this packaging?

Recyclability is key. That’s why we’ll never go beyond a prototype unless we have a recyclable solution. In the beginning that will probably mean separating the paper from the liner. There’s already good technology today to handle that type of packaging solution.

It’s meant to be to be part of a circular system, but we know bottles do escape the recycling loop. That’s why this bottle will be biodegradable.

Where do you see the Absolut Company’s packaging headed in the future?

There are three key parts: sustainability, connectivity, and consumer delight. The first is to have a circular packaging that leaves no waste behind. Another is to create a smart packaging, and this goes hand-in-hand with circular packaging. Through invisible bar codes, for example, it can report back to us when it enters the recycling loop.

The third is what our packaging does for consumers. Our bottles have looked the same for centuries. From Absolut Vodka’s perspective, it’s mainly a glass bottle that’s heavy. Maybe in the future we’ll 3D-print to tailor to our consumers’ preferences.

Any advice for fellow industry leaders contemplating changing their packaging?

Think about partnership as the new leadership. And dare to be transparent.

Did you work on a new innovative product or project? The deadline for submitting 2020 Environment + Energy Leader Awards entries is December 30, 2019. Find out the details here.

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