It’s never just paper: why aqueous linings should raise alarm bells

September 13, 2023

At Notpla, we believe that businesses and their customers deserve total transparency when it comes to the sustainability claims made around packaging. That’s why we’re here to clear up some common myths in this particularly shady end of the ‘sustainable’ packaging market, explain just why aqueous linings are not the plastic-free solution they claim to be and demonstrate how the tides are quickly turning against them.

So what actually is an aqueous lining?

Also referred to as water-based or dispersion coatings, aqueous linings are a type of barrier applied to paper and cardboard food packaging. They provide a greaseproof and water-resistant layer, preventing liquids from soaking into the paperboard.
Unlike conventional plastic linings such as PE and PLA which are physically glued onto the packaging, aqueous linings are painted onto the surface. The fluid soaks into the paper fibres, becoming part of the board’s structure and is heated, thus ensuring that the water evaporates, leaving behind only plastic.

It may sound fancy and ‘eco’ but when you strip away the big words, aqueous dispersion simply means “things” mixed in water… typically these “things” are microparticles of plastics such as polystyrene or acrylic.

Do aqueous linings contain plastic?

Yes. Aqueous linings contain a dispersion of plastic polymers like polystyrene and polyacrylates. Though present in smaller quantities compared to PE and PLA linings, these petrochemical-derived substances are still plastics.

Aqueous lining manufacturers claim their products are “plastic-free” because the plastic content is low. But make no mistake – these coatings still contain and release microplastics into the environment. Just because you can’t see the plastic, it doesn’t mean it’s not there. Far from it, researchers have shown that we may ingesting 5 grams of plastic a week – the equivalent of a credit card – commonly consumed through the takeaway packaging our food and drinks are contained in. Go a little deeper and the statistics get worse; by 2050 our oceans could contain more plastic than fish (by weight). Sadly, the harmful impact of microplastics have been linked to the cause of cancers, asthma, infertility, diabetes and other diseases.

How can these aqueous linings still be called “plastic-free” then?

A loophole currently allows aqueous linings to be certified as plastic-free, but that’s all set to change. Because these linings are applied like paint, the plastic polymers used can be viewed more like an adhesive, thus avoiding the plastic definition by way of not being “structural” – this structural technicality simply requires less than 10% of the total weight of the packaging to be the coating. But these sneaky semantics disregard the fact that aqueous linings are of course a structural part of the packaging because – without them – there would be no barrier and consumers would be left with a mushy, leaking paper box in their hands.

New EU legislation – chiefly the Single-Use Plastics Directive – is beginning to close this grey area though and stating that aqueous coatings are in fact plastic. In the EU, aqueous lined cups must now bear the stamp of shame – a “Plastic in Product” turtle warning logo and disposable food packaging with aqueous linings will face wider bans across Europe.

What’s the truth about recycling and composting these materials?

The recycling claims are questionable at best. Due to the way these microplastics are soaked into the paper board, rather than applied as an external coating, plastic particles end up in water effluent from mills as they can’t be separated from the paper fibres. Compostability standards only considers the box, not the lining so these half-truths let aqueous linings off the hook.

At Notpla, we go beyond slippery stats. Our natural seaweed coating means no contamination of recycling streams and a clear conscience when it comes to composting. With absolutely no plastic going in, Notpla packaging leaves no plastic traces behind.

Why we need a new solution

Plastic is plastic, no matter how you try and dress it up. Even small doses of aqueous linings equal big damage, as plastic persists for centuries in our planet.

Notpla’s renewable seaweed solution offers the functionality of plastic liners with none of the waste. Our coating provides the grease and moisture resistance customers expect, minus the greenwashing of other “eco-alternatives” and provides peace of mind for businesses looking not to get caught up in ever-expanding bans around these already dated solutions. Interested in seeing some of these food vendors doing just that? Take a look at some of the businesses choosing the easy, guilt-free way of doing business.

Ready for regenerative?

Whether you’ve got burning questions on how we source our seaweed, want to get into the nitty gritty of recycling or you just fancy a chat over lunch, we’d be delighted to see you.

Get in touch with our the team here.

Read one of our most recent articles

Notpla vs. Plastic
Plastic pollution has reached pandemic proportions, posing a severe threat to the health of our planet. Every year, millions of tonnes of plastic waste contaminate our oceans, rivers, lakes, and ecosystems, jeopardizing marine life and disrupting delicate ecological balances. The statistics are alarming – projections indicate that plastic pollution could more than double by 2030 if decisive action isn't taken now to reduce plastic use and improve waste management practices globally.
A spoon made of seaweed? The all-natural solution to single-use plastic cutlery is here.
Enjoying ice cream is one of life's simple pleasures. But let's be honest, the plastic spoons that often come with it can leave a bad taste in your mouth. Well, we have some exciting news… following a number of years of intensive research and testing, we've created a revolutionary new ice cream spoon made entirely from seaweed and plants. This new spoon offers a sturdy construction, a smooth feel in the mouth and a guilt-free way to indulge in frozen treats while caring for our Earth. 
A Peek Inside Notpla’s Design Lab
We recently sat down with our Product Designer August Ford to share an inside look at the new product development process of our packaging solutions, tailored to our customers' needs. At Notpla we prioritise the ability to constantly design new products, of different shapes and sizes, that meet our consumers' evolving preferences while reflecting our commitment to sustainability.