Functional and barrier coatings are extremely important in the production of paper and board packaging as they provide a protective barrier against water and water vapor, oil and grease, and oxygen and aromas. The barrier coatings industry faces ongoing change in preferred material usage as governments and brands increasingly look for alternatives to plastic packaging for sustainability and recycling purposes.

Smithers Pira’s new report The Future of Functional and Barrier Coatings for Paper and Board to 2024 details important sustainability initiatives, material preferences, and emerging applications in barrier coatings that are shifting the direction of the industry.

According to Smithers Pira, the market for functional and barrier coatings used in paper and board packaging applications topped 3 million tons in 2018; the total market will increase by an additional 1.5 million tons to 2024, adding some $3.2 billion to the total value at constant 2018 prices, a demand growth an average of 7.7% annually.

Sustainability and Recycling Challenges

Businesses are responding to shareholder and consumer demands for sustainability by including sustainability reports and goals in their annual communications and hiring teams to develop and execute plans to achieve these goals. Measures to promote sustainability in functional and barrier coatings tend to focus on four key areas: recovered fiber, repulpable and recyclable packaging, biodegradability and compostability, and carbon footprint.

The use of recycled and recyclable materials in packaging is driven by brand owners and retailers who regard it as important for their environmental credentials. Increasing volumes of recycled materials are being used in paper and board manufacturing, with recycled fibers accounting for 73% of the total volume of containerboard production in 2011, growing to about 77% by 2018 and expected to make up just under 80% of the total volume in 2023, Smithers Pira figures show.

Global attention is focused on the mounting issue of plastic waste, and there is growing demand for the replacement of plastic packaging materials with less environmentally damaging alternatives. Finding viable alternatives to materials such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and other polymers is key, such as the creation of paper-based blister pack solutions, which will likely penetrate the healthcare market.

The growing demand among consumers for on-the-go food and drink is driving up the consumption of single-use paper-based cups, with an estimated 200 billion cups being thrown away annually in the US alone, only about 0.25% recycled.       

The plastic coating (normally polyethylene) used to seal the rim, side, and bottom of the cupisn’t easy to recycle. Polyethylene is (currently) non-biodegradable, does not respond to microbial action in composting systems, and breaks down into flakes during the repulping process and blocks the filtering screens. Cities are gradually adopting a robust stance against single-use cups.

Solving this issue is the Holy Grail of the coated paper cup industry. Leading brands are taking steps to encourage refillable cups and newly developed bio-degradable cups. Leading converters are producing 90% biodegradable recyclable cups in industrial composting facilities, though a lack of adequate sorting facilities is hampering this, while other producers offer bioplastic solutions. Biodegradable cupstock is now available from several producers, including Metsä Board, Kotkamills, and Evergreen.

Materials and Raw Material Pricing Changes

Together with high-barrier polymers, extrusion polymers made up two-thirds of the total market in 2018. Aluminum materials, extrusion, and high-barrier polymers will show above the market average volume growth between 2019 and 2024, while silicones, wax, and fluorochemicals will lose market share over this period.

Flexible plastic packaging materials are expected to show the highest value growth over the period from 2019 to 2024, while metal and other materials such as wood are expected to show well below average growth. Total packaging demand by value is likely to grow by nearly 3% annually on average over the period under review. Paperboard and flexible paper demand will grow by between 3% and 3.5% annually over the review period.

There is a growing trend to change from solvent-based to water-based coatings to reduce the emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and provide safer working environments for operators during production processes. Much developmental work is underway to progress commercially viable water-based functional and barrier coatings for paper and board packaging applications in an effort to find alternatives to extruded plastics, especially polyethylene and PET, paraffin-based wax, silicones, and fluorochemicals.

The price of oil is a key determinant in the prices for oil-based polymer coatings. Oil prices have shown wide fluctuations and there is every likelihood that this volatility will continue to plague the market. Aluminum pricing has shown significant fluctuations historically.

Technology and Application Growth

The industry is taking numerous innovative actions to develop new technologies to improve the environmental credentials and efficiencies in the coatings market. Circular polymers, launched by SABIC in January 2019, represent a disruptive innovation in plastics recycling that is expected to see plastics becoming more acceptable to retailers, brand owners, and consumers.

Alternatives to wax-based coatings continue to be the focus of much developmental effort, with products such as hydrogenated tallow diglyceride commercially available and starting to penetrate this market. Antimicrobial coatings offering enhanced barrier properties for coatings are under development. Biomaterials have long been the focus of significant R&D and will ultimately result in the erosion of the petroleum-based polymer coatings market. Improved coating application technologies, such as curtain and slide coating processes, are creating the opportunity for greater efficiencies and cost-effectiveness in coating processes.

Food and beverage packaging accounts for some 80% of demand for coating on paper and board packaging. Non-food markets and the bakery industry are expected to show the highest growth rates in coating consumption over the medium term, although this will be from relatively low bases. Beverages and other liquids will make the single biggest contribution, adding some 450,000 tonnes of material to the industry

For more information about the Smithers Pira market report The Future of Functional and Barrier Coatings for Paper and Board to 2024, visit