Paper or Plastic? 4 Materials That Blur The Line Between Natural and Synthetic


By: Dr. Andrew H. Dent

It’s not really a case of “paper or plastic” anymore.

Over the last few years, it has been exciting to watch how material innovation in the packaging world has evolved, especially now that it's possible to get both performance and sustainable advances from the synthetic and natural sides of the debate. However, it can be difficult to distinguish between both paper that looks and feels more like plastic and plastics that mimic paper (and come from a renewable source).

Made using a traditional Japanese paper manufacturing technique known as washi suki, Naoron, is a soft and water-resistant material that’s a blend of wood and polyolefin fibers. This combination of natural and synthetic produces a creasing in the paper where the surface takes on the texture of worn-in leather. As the products are further handled, the material begins to soften and exhibits a unique patina that gives it an aged look.

A Scandinavian paper also follows this route of combining paper and plastic, with the cellulose fiber-based sheet offering comparable performance to plastic films and is available for a wide range of packaging applications - it's even recyclable with cardboard at the end of its life. Retaining the aesthetic of traditional paper but with nonwoven-like softness and plastic-like properties, it offers twice the durability at only half the weight and stretches up to 20 percent - typical packing papers are five percent to seven percent.

Natural papers are fighting back against synthetics in areas that were, until now, hard to replicate. The area of "soft touch" has typically needed a polyurethane coating to achieve its feel, but a fabric-like paper from German company Büttenpapierfabrik Gmund, aptly named Kaschmir, has a velvety-soft hand, much like cashmere wool. Combining 50 percent cotton with another proprietary blend, the velvety effect is created by a technique that merges paper with additional surface fibers for greater tactility. Unlike flocking, this paper can be decorated with a variety of printing effects, such as offset printing, hot foil stamping, letterpress, blind embossing, silk-screening, and die cutting.


Water solubility has been exclusive to the synthetics, however, the Swedish paper manufacturer Billerudkorsnas has produced the world’s first water-dissolvable sack solution for powdered materials. It’s produced from pure, white kraft pulp and consists of predominantly virgin wood fiber but also some calcium carbonate along with a water-soluble binder.

What we consider "plastic" is becoming increasingly blurred. According to Smithers Pira, the market for bioplastics in packaging will reach $3.4 billion in the next 5 years, though this will mostly take place in the EU. Advances in new plastics such as sugar-based polylactic acid (PLA) and Polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) both tout biodegradability as an end of life scenario (as well as renewable sources for our existing plastics like bio-based PET and PE that have the exact same chemistry as the petro-based versions ) and can be recycled in the both single and dual streams.

What is becoming more important than synthetic or natural in terms of environmental impact is whether or not they can be effectively recycled or composted after they've been used. And when I say composted I mean really composted – something that can be thrown away with your food scraps and can then be used as a fertilizer.

New regulations from China restricting the types of waste paper that it will accept mean that waste management companies need to practice greater selectivity in recycling to ensure that they can sell into China if desired. This is a continuation of Green Fence and National Sword which restricted the types of recycled plastics and other waste that China was willing to accept from other countries.

The choice between natural and synthetic becomes that much more important when a piece of plastic reaches the end of its life. More than 8 million tons of plastic make it into our oceans every year, so clever choices to assist better end of life solutions are where we can make the most impact. Make the packaging efficient and beautiful, but ultimately, designers should think about the next life for that material and how best and easiest it will be for the consumer to put it back into the value stream.


Dr. Andrew Dent

Dr. Andrew Dent is Executive Vice President of Research at Material ConneXion, and Chief Material Scientist at SANDOW. He plays a key role in the expansion of Material ConneXion’s technical knowledge base. His research directs the implementation of consulting projects and the selection of innovative, sustainable and advanced materials to Material ConneXion’s library, which currently houses over 8,000 material samples.

Dr. Dent received his Ph.D. in materials science from the University of Cambridge in England. Prior to joining Material ConneXion, Dr. Dent held a number of research positions both in industry and academia. At Rolls Royce PLC, Dr. Dent specialized in turbine blades for the present generation of jet engines. He has completed postdoctoral research at Cambridge University and at the Center for Thermal Spray Research, SUNY, Stony Brook, NY. Other research projects, during this period, included work for the US Navy, DARPA, NASA, and the British Ministry of Defense.

Since joining Material Connexion, Dr. Dent has helped hundreds of clients—from Whirlpool and Adidas to BMW and Procter & Gamble—develop or improve their products through the use of innovative materials. A leading expert on sustainable materials, his insight has played an important part in creating a new generation of more sustainable products.

He is a frequent speaker on sustainable and innovative material strategies, having given two TED talks at TEDx Grand Rapids and TEDNYC, and is the co-author of the Material Innovation book series. Dr. Dent has also contributed to numerous publications on the subject of material science, including Business Week, Fast Company and the Financial Times.  

In-DepthBill McCool