“Pouring from paper bottles is the future for wine drinkers,” declared The Telegraph recently.

It’s a bold claim, but is it one that holds water? Or wine, for that matter.

There have certainly been huge advances in paper packaging, and drinks businesses have been trying for years to find ways to make paper work for them. It is, after all, an awful lot lighter than glass.

The biggest hurdle is that paper and liquids simply don’t get on well together, and the solution is to put a barrier between the paper and the liquid. But doing so makes the bottle more difficult, if not impossible, to recycle as these barriers are often made of plastic (although alternatives are being developed) and must be separated from the paper outer.

UK business Frugalpac, which features in the Telegraph article, has overcome this with a design featuring a foil pouch inside a card bottle. Think bag-in-box, but with attractive curves.

Consumers are encouraged to separate the two, with the packaging featuring a clearly marked ‘button’ that can be pushed to split the bottle. The card can then easily be recycled through kerbside collection, though the foil may need to be taken to a recycling point.

Major drinks suppliers are exploring paper

Frugalpac’s innovation is making its mark on the industry, with brands including Greenall’s gin and When in Rome wine adopting the format. The latter sold more than 8,000 bottles of white and rosé at Coldplay’s recent gigs in Manchester, though that may say as much about Coldplay fans as the success of the packaging.

Frugalpac states that more than 35 drinks producers around the world have now launched a combined 120 SKUs of wines, spirits and olive oils in its bottle, and the company is also selling producers the machinery to make the paper bottles themselves. The latest of these is California’s Monterey Wine Company, which was yesterday announced as the first US company to buy the equipment.

The success of Frugalpac highlights the appetite food and drink businesses have for paper packaging if suppliers get the format right.

Among the businesses exploring paper packing are Carlsberg, which last year tested wood-fibre bottles at festivals, and Absolut, which has launched a bottle that is 57% paper and 43% plastic barrier lining. Confectioners are also getting in on the act. Mars bars were launched in paper-based packaging in 500 Tesco stores this year, and Nestlé UK&I is using paper for Kit Kat and Quality Street packaging with a view to developing better barrier performance.

It’s easy to see why fmcg players are turning to paper – consumers love the stuff.

Deloitte found that more than 60% of UK consumers view paper as the most sustainable option for packaging, while a study found shoppers believe a snack bar wrapped in plastic with an outer layer of paper packaging is more environmentally friendly than just plastic. It’s hard not to judge them, but apparently they would even pay more for the layer of paper.

Paper production uses large volumes of water

However, while paper scores highly for recyclability, it may not deserve its status as a paragon of sustainability.

Water use will continue to be a major issue and paper production uses large volumes of the stuff, though suppliers are working to reduce this.

Arguably a far bigger issue is deforestation and monoculture. This is the process of planting a single variety of tree to provide a resource, such as the wood pulp used to make paper. Monocultures, for obvious reasons, lack biodiversity and can result in reduced soil quality that may in turn lead to increased use of chemicals. It is also claimed the dense planting of monoculture forests increases the risk of wildfires. Just what the world needs right now.

Whether consumers are unaware of these issues, or are willing to look past them after years of vilification of plastic, it seems likely the sustainability of paper will come under further scrutiny. In the rush to reduce the use of materials such as plastic, and indeed glass, businesses must weigh up factors including lifecycle assessment, recyclability and consumer perceptions before switching materials.

When questioned, Frugalpac is clearly confident in the environmental credentials of its own bottle, which is made from 94% recycled paperboard and has a carbon footprint six times lower than a glass bottle.

While it remains to be seen whether paper is the future of wine packaging, fmcg businesses and their suppliers should be prepared to answer questions about the origins of their own paper packaging. The wrong answers might result in a nasty hangover.