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The paper industry, trying to counter gains by plastics in the packaging industry, is developing new kinds of containers that are not only cheaper than plastic but significantly extend the shelf lives of juices, soups, fabric softeners, cereals, insecticides and many other products.

The first of the containers have reached the supermarket shelf in recent months in the form of cartons for juices such as Tropicana, Dole, Citrus Hill and Minute Maid.While the cartons look like their paper predecessors, they are quite different: The new products all combine composite materials - thin layers of thermoplastics - with the usual cardboard packaging.

Spokesmen for the International Paper Co., which makes many of the containers, say they have a shelf life two to three times that of their predecessors.

But the product is no more easily recycled than its predecessor, and may be less so, which makes it more vulnerable to environmental critics.

Juice and milk containers are the only such products on the market right now, but Bruce J. Thoman, manager of International Paper's packaging products and systems division, said the new material would lead to new and better packaging for microwavable products because the new material permitted better flavor retention.

``In the old packaging, we had noticed that the packaging absorbed some of the flavor of the contents' of microwavable foods, he said.

``This material does a far better job of preventing that.'

Also, he said, the composite paper material will give dried foods like cereal, baking mixes and snacks a longer shelf life because it keeps out moisture, preventing the food from becoming rancid.

``You're also going to see it go more into 'aggressive chemicals' such as laundry soaps and herbicides and insecticides,' Thoman said.

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