Like many other major plastics applications, plastics use in flexible packaging has come under deep scrutiny in recent years as sustainability concerns rise and spread globally.
Paper is often lauded as a far more environmentally friendly alternative but how do the two materials really compare? And what is the most sustainable solution?
Historically, papers have been used in flexible packaging for many applications, including confectionery, pet food and dried food. By the early-2000s, however, paper demand as a flexible packaging substrate began to decline due to competition from down-gauging and the rise of plastic alternatives.
Wood Mackenzie’s global flexible packaging market analysis puts the market size for converter supplied flexible packaging at roughly $90 billion in 2018 and $93 billion in 2019. Plastic-based value-added flexible packaging, i.e. converter supplied, accounts for roughly 93% of total consumption, compared to paper/board-based flexible packaging which accounts for about 5%.
Paper vs plastic: comparing green credentials
After many years of declining demand, paper-based flexible packaging is growing in popularity with the general public as end-consumers demand more sustainable packaging solutions.
Consumers today widely view paper as a more environmentally friendly alternative to plastic. A European consumer preferences survey, commissioned by Two Sides in 2020, concluded that 62% of consumers see paper and cardboard packaging as better for the environment. Additionally, 70% of consumers surveyed said they were actively taking steps to reduce their use of plastic packaging.
Comparing green credentials isn’t as straightforward as some would think, however.
Paper is far more biodegradable than plastic and very easily recycled. But it often ends up in landfill, where its degradation rate slows – while it takes up more space than the same weight of plastic. Additionally, paper-based flexible packaging is often laminated with plastic/aluminium or coated with resin, therefore becoming non-recyclable.
Plastic’s properties make plastic packaging ideally suited for efficiently containing and protecting products during shipment and delivery to customers. However, despite its advantages, plastic is made of a non-renewable resource, whereas paper is made of trees. Furthermore, plastic can be recycled but it is currently difficult to achieve high levels of post-consumer recycled content in plastics due to post-consumer waste contamination.
Conversely, paper is relatively easy to recycle as it can be re-pulped. This means it does not rely on chemical reactions and is less sensitive to contamination. As such, there are some environmental advantages to using paper as a substrate for flexible packaging if it does not increase food waste and/or compromise other properties essential to the packaged product. This has led to some brands replacing plastic packaging with paper.
What does this mean for the plastics industry?
Plastic film suppliers and converters are increasingly focusing on sustainable solutions and working towards changing negative public perception. In recent years, there have been efforts to promote more sustainable plastic-based flexible packaging. These include solutions that use a higher percentage of recycled materials all the way through to optimising design for recyclability.
In addition to manufacturers and brands acting, the drive for sustainability in packaging is also accelerating at the legislative level.
This is particularly true in Europe where transnational EU directives have targeted packaging as part of a new Green New Deal. However, almost all the packaging initiatives that have been driven by EU targets are exclusively focused on plastics instead of paper.
They reflect a general sustainability-minded consciousness which is more concerned with end-of-life disposal than a holistic perspective accounting for environmental cost throughout the production and distribution of packaged products.
Packaging producers and governments need to accept the nuance of sustainability in packaged goods and push for new priorities across different packaging types in order to create the best solution for the environment.
What’s the most sustainable solution?
So, is there a perfect substrate solution? The quick answer is no. Whether paper or plastic is the most sustainable substrate for flexible packaging will largely depend on the application.
However, the real focus should be on reducing all single-use packaging, regardless of the substrate.
The way forward for the flexible packaging industry is to introduce better recycling systems, more recycling-friendly flexible packaging solutions, smaller amounts of substrate per package and a stricter focus on creating a circular economy.
Overall, the problem relies not so much on the substrate used but on how much we use and how we process it back into the production cycle.
Collaboration between brands, resin producers, recycling companies and converters is key to accelerating progress towards more sustainable flexible packaging solutions.
By Mariana Santos Moreira, Wood Mackenzie Senior Research Analyst
Contributor: Wood Mackenzie, a Verisk Analytics business, is a trusted source of commercial intelligence for the world’s natural resources sector. We empower clients to make better strategic decisions, providing objective analysis and advice on assets, companies and markets. For more information visit: www.woodmac.com