Industry suppliers are helping tobacco companies reduce the environmental impact of their operations.
By Stefanie Rossel
Globally, consumers and regulators are pushing for more sustainable products, including tobacco products. For the environment, tobacco production is a damaging business. In 2014, cigarette manufacturing was responsible for 84 million tons, or 0.2 percent, of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. As part of their harm reduction strategy, tobacco companies have been working to lower not only the health risks of their products but also the environmental impact of their operations. Leading players are aiming to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030 and “net-zero across” their value chains by 2050.
To make tobacco products more environmentally friendly, there are two main levers: cigarette filters and cigarette packaging. Worldwide, 98 percent of cigarette filters consist of cellulose acetate (CA), a polymer that takes up to 10 years to degrade in the environment. Cigarette butts are among the most littered items on earth. The films and tear tapes used for cigarette packaging are made from polypropylene, a petroleum-based plastic.
To support their clients in reducing their environmental footprints, industry suppliers have been rethinking traditional, nonsustainable components and developing greener solutions, thereby also considering the effects these new solutions might have on production processes and the supply chain. Close cooperation with other suppliers and partners plays a vital role in this process.
“We are all on the journey together,” says Robert Pye, CEO of Singapore-based specialty filter manufacturer Filtrona. “We are working closely together with the larger players at the front end of the market and also with suppliers who offer interesting solutions for base materials. Where we come into play is the design of the filter. We use our scientific services to examine the smoke chemistry in these products, to understand the phenols, taste and nicotine that’s delivered.”
Filtrona says it has seen significantly increased interest in its sustainable filter products, such as its ECO range of fiber-based, biodegradable filter products. In the European Union, this is partly a result of the Single-Use Plastics Directive (SUPD), which entered into force in 2021 and bans the sale of single-use plastic-containing items such as plates, cutlery, straws and cotton bud sticks as well as food containers and expanded polystyrene cups. The law exempts cigarette filters. However, starting in December, it will oblige tobacco manufacturers to cover the costs of consumer awareness campaigns and extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes tackling the cleanup, transport and treatment of litter. The EU is expected to ban filters in the long term.
To support its ECO product line, Filtrona opened a center of excellence in Budapest this summer, which will increase the company’s production capacity and speed-to-market of sustainable filter solutions. The center combines Filtrona’s extensive experience in manufacturing nonwoven filters with advanced, high-speed production technology and the latest testing methods to produce sustainable filters for various tobacco product applications, including cigarettes, heated-tobacco products (HTPs), cigarillos, cigars, roll-your-own and make-your-own cigarettes. The center enables tobacco companies to develop and manufacture a portfolio of sustainable tobacco products. “The facility can manufacture products at volumes varied in many special nonwoven products,” says Pye. “It’s important to us that we have one location that meets the needs of what is in the SUPD roadmap. We want to make sure we’re ahead of the curve in terms of capability and investment. We already invested several million dollars in this site to implement sustainable machinery from the leading manufacturers and will continue to invest in the future.”
With the launch of its Evolute fiber-based filtering media in June 2022, SWM, too, is offering nonplastic alternatives to CA filters. Evolute products can be used for all tobacco products that require filters, including filter tips, roll-your-own tobacco, tubes, cigarillos and conventional cigarettes. “Our solutions are ready to use and show a very good performance on the makers,” explains Alice Jaussaud, product manager for Evolute filtering media at SWM. The company already has a natural fiber filter solution on the market and is working on the next generation of sustainable and alternative filter solutions. “We are working on a day-to-day basis with key industry stakeholders,” she adds. “We create cooperations with the whole value chain to offer our customers more than a simple raw material solution but a raw material that fits their needs. We work closely with our customers to support them in their transition, to ensure high runnability performance on the maker and to develop the ideal filter design to provide the full solution.”
Scarcity as Driver
Persisting supply shortages in acetate tow and rising CA prices have recently driven the need for solutions that are not based on polymer, says Pye. They have also caused California-based biodegradable cigarette filter manufacturer Greenbutts to be “inundated with inquiries from every corner of the globe,” according to Chief Strategy Officer Luis Sanches. “We are responding quickly to each potential client with prototypes, quotations and fulfilled orders,” he says.
The company has developed a patented substrate and filters made of all-natural, food-grade fibers, such as abaca fiber, cotton flock and industrial hemp as well as a starch-based binder. The product is sold in bulk or as ready-made rods of filters and filter tips. Partnering with Boegli-Gravures, Greenbutts introduced and accelerated the Greenbossing technology, which resulted in a second-generation solution that significantly enhances the sensorial filtration technology for both low-tar and high-tar products, according to Sanches.
Greenbutts is working closely with all key OEMs to ensure its substrate is fully qualified and ready to roll out the transition from CA to Greenbutts, he says. “As part of our innovation strategy, there is a need to ensure the newly filed IPs are fully adaptable and successfully integrated in a wide range of existing and next-generation filter makers.”
Greenbutts partners with an Italian tobacco equipment manufacturer, Montrade, from which it recently acquired a machine with multiple filter manufacturing capabilities. “This will enable Greenbutts to increase the production specification offerings beyond mono-acetate filter replacement,” says Sanches. “The different formats and new machine features will enlarge our product portfolio choices in a much larger geography.”
A Paper Tsunami
Montrade has developed several solutions for the manufacture of sustainable filters, among them a new version of its paper crimper with rod former, which uses 15 percent to 20 percent less paper than traditional crimpers, according to Sales Director Antonella Giannini. “Thus, a very homogeneous and stable filter can be created with no variation in pressure drop and superb quality,” she says. “The retention of paper is much higher than that of CA, which means that tar and nicotine will be reduced—if you use less paper, you will get less of the typical taste of a paper filter. For better machinability in the downstream process, we have increased the hardness.”
Giannini confirms that the market is moving toward sustainable solutions. “It is a constant trend increase, and we expect it will accelerate further in 2024,” she says. “I call it ‘paper tsunami,’ and we are ready to face it. In the last six months, we have delivered many lines, and we have acquired many orders for sustainable filter makers and many paper-crimping modules. It is important to say that we offer not only complete crimping machines but also a crimping module for easy and fast connection to any existing rod maker machine, like KDF. We offer the option to upgrade the existing fleet of rod makers to meet the future scenario of sustainable filters.”
The priority, she adds, is to retain the smoking experience. “It is not an easy task, but there are teams of engineers and scientists that are ambitious to win; I am sure they will,” she says.
Pye is equally confident in the ability of his specialists. “With the ECO range, what we have learned from our developments with different customers and their own developments is that we can reproduce all the same complexities of filters that we produce in CA—tubes, carbon, flavor capsule, varying different pressure drops or changing taste profiles,” he says. “We have the building blocks to have a successful product range within the area of sustainable filter solutions.”
Despite the availability of products and manufacturing equipment, the transition to more environmentally friendly filters will take time. Supply chains must be organized, and capacity must be built. As Pye points out, even in an advanced market like Western Europe, this will be quite challenging. Key considerations are consumer acceptance, scalability and cost, with consumer acceptance taking precedence, according to Sanches.
Demand Growing Outside the EU
Demand for sustainable filter solutions will receive another boost once all EU member states have transposed the EPR scheme into national rules, according to Jaussaud. Like Pye, she observes growing demand also outside Europe, for instance in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. In the end, regulation will be the biggest influencer of sustainable filter solutions, says Pye. The Conference of the Parties to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, scheduled to take place in November in Panama City, will also address the problems posed by single-use plastics. “It is likely that many countries across the globe will adopt the guidelines and transpose them into country-specific laws and respective enforcement,” says Sanches.
Giannini believes that transition will start accelerating in 2025. China, the world’s largest cigarette market, is likely to take much longer than Europe to turn to sustainable filters, she says, in part because it is a conservative market with a significant domestic acetate tow industry.
While acknowledging the role of regulation, Jaussaud says there are other factors as well. “We clearly see a growing interest from the tobacco industry to move to sustainable solutions,” she says. “However, it’s a big change, so it takes time to make the transition concrete. It’s a long journey, but it has already started.”
The push for sustainable filters has yet to become evident in heated-tobacco products, according to Pye. “In reality, there is a shift toward more acetate tow-based products,” he says. “But it’s just a matter of time.” HTPs are an important segment for Filtrona, for which it also provides a range of sustainable products. The company recently conducted a sample testing at a large HTP manufacturer, which is currently in the review process. It has also invested in its testing facility in Surabaya, Indonesia, to ensure it has all requirements to test HTPs, especially their thermal characteristics.
Jaussaud emphasizes that SWM’s Evolute range is suitable for all the tobacco filter segments, including HTPs. “We have trials going on in this field,” she says. “It will not necessarily take longer for HTPs to adopt sustainable filter solutions—the customers behind HTPs want sustainable solutions as much as cigarette smokers. We would like to support converting all filter segments, not only combustible cigarettes.”
Greenbutts is also evaluating HTPs. “According to the latest assessments, our substrate is unfolding as a viable replacement for CA components in THPs [tobacco-heating products],” says Sanches.
A Sustainable Shell
In addition to filters, cigarette packaging, too, offers considerable potential for more sustainable solutions. Filtrona recently introduced Rippatape Halo, a patent-pending paper-based tear tape that provides a sustainable offering for the easy opening of paper and board packaging. “Tear tapes are a niche in the market, but we also offer sustainable solutions in this area,” explains Pye. “It is challenging because the type of product must have a number of characteristics, such as strength and opening performance. Halo Rippatape follows the characteristics of our Rippatape range, so it’s very close. The product has been on the market for six months now, and we’re starting to see some broad-based interest. But if a tobacco product is wrapped with fossil-based plastic, there’s of course not much point in an eco-tear tape solution.”
Innovia Films, a global producer of differentiated specialty biaxially oriented polypropylene (BOPP), is also offering sustainable packaging solutions. In 2018, it introduced Encore, a range of recyclable films. One of the films in the range incorporates a bio-based raw material that reduces the use of fossil-based packaging and the carbon footprint, and another aids the circular economy by using a chemically recycled polymer.
The Encore films are certified ISCC PLUS, a global sustainability certification system. According to the Innovia, the sustainable films have the same properties as the equivalent fossil-based BOPP film, including high clarity and gloss, high stiffness and printability.
To reduce carbon emissions and product waste, conserve resources and move to a circular economy, Innovia has been using Lifecycle Analysis to measure the benefit of product changes. “If packaging does not provide a functional benefit, it should be removed, regardless of the material selected,” says Alicia Crane, product manager at Innovia. “If it adds additional barrier benefits to increase shelf life and reduce waste and thus carbon emissions and product tracking, every effort should be made to reduce the weight of the packaging material required and make sure that it can be recycled into as near a closed-loop application as possible.”
Make it Circular
For organic products, one of the packaging’s key functions is to provide a barrier against undesired elements. On top of requiring oxygen and flavor barriers like most food products, tobacco products traditionally have required a tropical vapor barrier, and the material must meet regulatory requirements. Depending on formulation and coating, the Encore range provides good moisture barrier and excellent functionality on high-speed machines, according to Innovia. In addition, the films require little energy and carbon during production, and they are able to be recycled effectively many times without suffering a degradation of their properties.
The variant based on a bio-based material is bio-circular, according to Crane: “Using ISCC PLUS-certified resins and the mass-balance approach, second-generation feedstock waste from other industries, such as tall oil or used cooking oil, can be used as alternative raw material sources to produce polypropylene resins. Because these raw materials go in at the primary stage of the production process, the ultimate films produced have exactly the same fingerprint as standard films, and all physical and mechanical properties are identical. The film importantly has food contact status. Because of the move from fossil-based sourcing, the material has a reduced carbon impact, which, depending on the percentage switched, can result in carbon-neutral film, cradle to gate.”
The circular product, which follows the same ISCC guidance and mass balance approach, employs raw materials that come from recycled mixed waste plastic by using chemical recycled processing. Tobacco films can be made with up to 90 percent recycled content. The film has the exact same physical and mechanical properties and food contact status, says Crane. “The consumer readily understands that higher levels of recycled materials mean less waste is being disposed of and more valued resources are kept in the economy,” she says. “The demand for recycled content has been significant, being more than the new investment in chemical recycling facilities has been able to deliver. This demand will only increase with new regulations coming into place. Bio circular does not see the same level of pull at present; perhaps the regulation on carbon emissions is behind that on packaging waste.”
Mechanical recycled content, which goes directly into the product, is enjoying considerable interest, she adds. It is another tool to retain valued resources and help build a circular economy.