Laying down the paper-for-flexible gauntlet - The Noel D'Cunha Sunday Column

There is a need to replace plastic in packaging to tackle the climate emergency. Koehler’s head of marketing and communications Christoph Müller-Stoffels says, consumers are demanding sustainable packaging, and paper is a solution which is made from sustainable raw material.

In this Sunday Column conversation, Müller-Stoffels tells PrintWeek that his company has a paper-based solution, which goes hand in hand with its sustainability strategy

26 Jan 2020 | By Noel D'Cunha

Müller-Stoffels – “Koehler has invested half a billion euros in setting up the plant for manufacturing flexible packaging paper”

PrintWeek (PW): With over 200 years of history, Koehler is one of the only few family-owned paper making companies in Germany. Tell us a little about the history of the company. 
Christoph Müller-Stoffels (CMS): With a company full of history, it sometimes is difficult to find a starting point when talking about this history. Koehler Paper Group was founded in 1807 in Oberkirch, southwest of Germany. The company was always led by a member of the family. The CEO, Kai Furler represents the eighth generation. Before him, his father and his uncle were in charge.

PW: The rise from being a small paper company to becoming a leader in the segment of specialty paper began with the production of carbonless paper 50 years ago?
CMS: Yes, that’s when the demand for carbonless paper is declining, but Koehler is still one of the main producers for this paper and market leader in Europe. In 1986, the first patent for thermal paper was filed, and with this began a success story. Thermal paper for POS is the most successful product of the company, and it paved the way for the present and future.

PW: In a sense, it’s important that a company thinks ahead?
CMS: At Koehler, we did and we do. The management knew that thermal paper is a product that will be around for at least another decade, if not longer.

But that was not as much as we thought. We were already thinking much further into the future – What will be next? And what is the company’s expertise? Clearly, that is not only producing high-quality paper, but also adding value through the coating.

A segment in paper, which is growing is packaging paper, especially paper for flexible packaging. Combined with functional coating, this is a segment where Koehler will be able to shine. Koehler will produce paper which will replace plastic in packaging. This goes hand in hand with Koehler’s sustainability strategy.

PW: Producing paper is energy-intensive. How did you reduce the negative impact?
CMS: In 2012 Koehler founded the Koehler Renewable Energy. The sole goal of the company is to produce green energy and steam through all kinds of renewable source: biomass, wind, water and solar power. Koehler has the goal to produce more energy than is needed for paper production by 2030.

PW: Going back, one of the important investment in 1934 was the construction of the first coating machine. Can you tell us why it was so important in the success of your company? 
CMS: The coating machine in 1934 was important for the production of playing cardboard. It taught the paper makers a lot and paved the way to specialising in functional coatings.

PW: There seems to be a shift from recycled to virgin fibre. You have both types of products. What your views and future forecast?
CMS: Both types of paper are equally important. Without virgin fibre paper, there wouldn’t be recycled paper. There are applications where virgin fibre is needed. But there are also applications where using virgin fibre doesn’t make sense and recycled paper should be used.

The beauty of paper is that the recycling stream is solved and that it is easy to produce high-quality recycled paper from waste paper. This is how it should be. India only recycles 23% of the paper used. In Germany, this quota is 76%.  

PW: A new plant for manufacturing flexible packaging paper: Tell us what message you are trying to send out.  What was the need to move into the flexible packaging paper segment? Is this plant a response to the theory that the packaging converters now expect more from converting manufacturers? Paper manufacturers or maybe the brand owners expect more from the packaging converters?
CMS: What Koehler will offer is what consumers demand: sustainable packaging solutions for all industries. Paper is made from sustainable raw materials. You can’t replant crude oil which is the raw material of plastics.

The paper manufacturers have the responsibility to offer solutions to converters and brand owners, and Koehler is aware of this responsibility. The climate crisis is real, and we all have to find solutions. Producing functional packaging paper is Koehler’s share to find solutions to combat this crisis.

PW: What kind of investment did it entail? 
CMS: Koehler invested Euro 300-million. Together with some other investments into the energy branch and its other plants, the investment rises to half a billion euros.

PW: What about the technical aspects of the new paper machine? This is the first brand new paper machine making flexible packaging grades after about 30 years. Assembling this machine would have been quite exciting.
CMS: It’s a machine designed for the needs of the company and the market. At its core, there is the world’s largest Yankee Dryer with a diameter of 7.3 meters. The width of the machine is 4.2 meters. We have an offline coating machine, and we can produce paper in the range of 25-135 gsm.

PW: For Koehler, flexible packaging will be a completely new segment of the business, with no experience, how do you expect to compete with the established players, especially for the expertise in the manufacturing required for a different kind of papers in the flexible packaging industry.
CMS: Koehler is not new to the world of packaging. With fine paper and recycled paper, Koehler already developed and marketed paper for packaging. To the segment of flexible packaging, Koehler is new, but as with everything Koehler does, the company is prepared. Key players in this department bring decades of experience both from the packaging industry and from the flexible packaging paper industry.

Plus, Koehler brings values to the table, which are important in every industry. Koehler is a reliable partner and offers consistently high quality.

PW: There’s a need for benchmarking efficiency norms in terms of runability, strength and looks. As a mill, you would have done it with your input materials. Have you benchmarked efficiency norms among the packaging converters? What exists in Europe, which can be applied to the Indian players, and more importantly, do your product match the requirements? 
CMS: Koehler develops its products together with converters, brand owners and producers of packaging machines. Trial runs show that the functional paper like NexPlus Seal runs on some machines as good as plastic solutions. This is definitely an important point when it comes to packaging machines.

PW: Like the rest of the nations around the world, India too is moving towards sustainability and producing responsible packaging solutions. There are stringent norms in place, particularly where plastic is concerned. The onus of sustainability, however, begins with the paper manufacturers. How do you ensure it – from the use of raw material, manufacturing process to products? 
CMS: Koehler commissioned a streamlined life-cycle assessment. It showed that the paper solution has a carbon footprint that is more than 60% smaller than that of the traditional solution made of plastic. Koehler uses only pulp from certified wood (FSC and PEFC). Wherever it is possible, Koehler tries to reduce its carbon footprint and works towards a more sustainable solution.

PW: FSC is a trend that hasn’t really picked up in India. Your views on whether FSC is more a hype? 
CMS: FSC isn’t just a trend, it’s a given in the German paper industry together with PEFC. Paper can only call itself more sustainable when the forestry is sustainable. At the end of the day, doing business only makes sense when the next generation also can make business. Koehler as a family-owned and family-run business always thinks and acts with the next generation in mind.

PW: In the start, what does the FlexTech product range consist of? Request you to shed some light on the product variants available?
CMS: Koehler will produce paper in the range of 25-135 gsm. We will have uncoated paper in our product line NexPure, one side-coated (c1s) paper in the product line NexCoat and paper with different barrier properties in the product line NexPlus.

PW: Plastic has many advantages when it comes to providing packaging solutions, which paper may find it hard to match. That’s a big challenge? 
CMS: There are applications where plastic is the smarter solution. But there are many applications where paper can replace plastic as a packaging material, and it should be done. The paper industry will come up with smarter solutions, new and more sophisticated barriers.

For Koehler, it is important that the raw material for the barrier isn’t a possible food source. We should not compete with agricultural areas (in Germany or elsewhere) for whether it is used for food or raw material for packaging.

Koehler does research and development on this, alone and with partners. With the Darmstadt Institute of Technology, Koehler has a shared lab uniquely focusing on the development of new and more complex barriers for flexible packaging paper.

Coming back to flexible packaging, which are the applications and end-uses your flexible packaging papers can be used to produce? What are the related requirements, if any? 
CMS: Koehler’s paper for flexible packaging can be used in all forms and applications where flexible packaging paper is used such as bags, pouches, flow packs, wraps and much more. It is very good for all forms of converting and printing. The combination of a high smoothness and a rough reverse side makes it perfect for all the different uses.

For innovative barrier paper, there are a lot of more possible applications. We are working together with producers of packaging machines, converters and brand owners to develop more sustainable packaging solutions and replace plastic where it is possible and where it makes sense.

One of the segments in flexible packaging is food-related packaging, where the packaging is required to be more customer complaint than any other products. How does your product combat this threat?
CMS: At Koehler, we are committed to high standards like ISO 9001 or ISO 22000. The Koehler management system also ensures a high standard and quality through the whole value chain. Our paper machine and coating machine are state of the art and are designed exactly for flexible packaging paper. Apart from that, we work with a constantly high quality of pulp and all the other ingredients.

Brand owners like Nestle, Mac Donalds, Costa Coffee and many more have joined the war against single-use plastics. What are the plans for Koehler Paper Group in the coming year 2020? Any new developments in this direction?
CMS: Our vision is to create better sustainable packaging solutions for all industries. Our mission is to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable and responsible packaging based on paper. Step by step, we will achieve this, also with the support of our partners like Java Paper Group.

Java Paper Group as Koehler partner in India

Koehler values Java Paper Group as a partner with a lot of reputation and experience in the Indian market. Java was one of the first paper merchants in India to get FSC certified and holds the certificate for over 10 years now. This goes along with the values Koehler stands for. Sustainability is very important for both companies in the environmental aspect as well as in the way we do business.

Sagar Java (r) and Sunil Bhatia (r) of CH Java with Zink Bernd of Koehler (c) at the Koehler mill in Germany