Going for paper instead of plastic
Behonce Beh 
Paper cups are widely used by cafes and cafeterias in the country

THE ban on polystyrene food containers and single-use plastic bags in a few states has allowed paper packaging and food container manufacturers to grow their business in the disposable packaging segment.

Foodabox Dot Com Sdn Bhd co-founders Dick Lim and June Mun say the ban not only improved their earnings but also raised greater awareness among customers.

Foodabox, founded by Lim (left) and Mun, runs a co-branded initiative to subsidise the cost of paper lunch boxes for small businesses

The company saw an 80% year-on-year increase in turnover last year following the ban.

“While people were aware of paper food containers, they didn’t know where to source them and opted for plastic containers as an alternative.

“Now, there is a growing number of enquiries for our products due to the ban,” Lim says.

He says most of the time, buyers start with a small order for paper food containers or cups and progress to other items such as paper bags.

Penang was the first to impose a “no plastic bag” campaign in 2010 which eventually led to a ban on polystyrene food packaging two years later.

Retailers in Selangor were banned from providing polystyrene food containers and free single-use plastic bags to their customers with effect from Jan 1, last year. A fine of RM1,000 will be imposed on traders who defy the ban.

Meanwhile, Johor is the latest state to impose a similar ban, effective Jan 1.

Paper product manufacturers and traders have also seen positive growth after the ban.

Brown Pulp Pac founder Jaden Wong says he experienced a 50% increase in sales during the first few months following the ban.

Wong says demand for paper food packaging has been encouraging

“Sales went up, tapered a little in the middle of the year and rose again close to the end of last year. Such movements are a normal business cycle for us,” he says.

Cost is a factor for food and beverage (F&B) operators when deciding on using paper instead of other packaging.

A disposable styrofoam cup costs less than five sen, while the widely used polyethylene (PE)-lined paper cup costs about 30 sen.

“Some argue that PE-lined paper cups are not as eco-friendly. This is because the lining takes longer to degrade.

“There are alternatives to that but it costs about 50% more than the regular PE-lined paper cups,” says Wong.


Demand from users

The use of paper packaging has grown beyond eco-conscious citizens or little cafes. Wong says one of his customers uses over 300,000 paper bags a month to pack his signature curry puffs.

However, smaller cafes make much smaller orders of paper cups which are restocked on a quarterly basis, depending on their sales.

Meanwhile, petty traders and hawkers are open to trying paper lunch boxes but are deterred by the higher cost compared with plastic containers.

Mun says aside from its corporate orders, Foodabox runs a co-branded initiative to subsidise the cost of paper lunch boxes by selling them for as little as 10 sen each.

An unbranded paper lunch box would normally cost about 29 sen each, he says.

The company does this through an advertising campaign that is sponsored by a brand with its message printed on the paper lunch boxes. These boxes are then sold to smaller traders at a subsidised cost.

“Our subsidised lunch boxes are currently used by over 40 mamak restaurants across the Klang Valley.

“There has been demand beyond Selangor for these lunch boxes but the numbers are still very small,” he says.


Difference in material

Not all paper food containers and packaging are of the same quality. For starters, Wong tells of a common misconception that brown or darker-coloured packaging is made from recycled paper.

“Paper packaging that comes in direct contact with food has to be made from virgin pulp. The brown colour of the paper usually denotes where it is from,” he says.

Unbleached paper, he says, maintains the natural wood colour, while darker brown paper suggests that the pulp originated from trees grown in northern Europe.

Recycled paper can be used to make complementary accessories to food packaging such as paper cup sleeves and pastry boxes.

On whether the bring-your-own-bag or food container policy will impact sales, Wong says he does not foresee this happening.

“While it will definitely be great if everyone brought their own containers, there are times when you just want to grab a meal, snack or drink.

“Single-use containers are there to provide users with convenience as not everyone will bring their container everywhere they go unless the purchase is pre-planned,” he says.

Eco-friendly option

THERE are opposing views on whether paper food containers are actually an eco-friendly option compared to its chemical-based counterparts such as plastic or polystyrene.

Foodabox Dot Com Sdn Bhd co-founder Dick Lim says a lot of factors have to be considered when speaking of eco-friendliness.

In terms of carbon footprint, producing styrofoam and polystyrene food packaging has a lower environmental impact, but they cannot be managed in a sustainable manner.

“For instance, although they can be recycled, people choose not to do so due to the hassle of having to clean them. Hence, such food boxes can potentially become mosquito breeding grounds,” he says.

Nonetheless, advanced economies such as Japan continue to use plastic bags owing to its efficient waste management and recycling ecosystem which can manage resources from cradle to grave.

To a certain extent, an eco-friendly food container option has to meet the usage and disposal patterns of local users.

Single-use food containers must be able to degenerate without having to be cleaned out after use.

“Paper food containers disintegrate upon contact with water. This meets the local usage requirements as Malaysians generally do not recycle food containers,” Lim says.

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 270.