Kathy Illingworth v2

Ecoveritas’ Head of Sustainability and Consulting, Kathy Illingworth, gives her views on why the binary ‘plastic = bad, paper = good’ approach to packaging decisions comes with significant risks.


Acknowledging the need for sustainability is one thing; understanding how to achieve it is another.

With sustainability no longer an option but a necessity, sustainability must become integral to packaging design.

Over the last two decades, brands and consumers have demanded more sustainable packaging. But sustainability is a complex hydra. For some, it represents recyclability. For others, it suggests a commitment to reduce carbon emissions and combat climate change. But most agree on this: single-use plastics don’t qualify.

Regarding packaging, plastic is frequently cast as the villain in the piece. And almost by default, paper is, more often than not, cast as the hero – a ‘green, renewable’ material.

The reality is more complicated. Concerns around deforestation and the recyclability of the barriers and coatings used in paper-based packaging mean paper isn’t always the good guy. As a packaging material, paper doesn’t possess any barrier properties. Hence, paper packaging requires additional treatments, typically by adding barrier coatings in papermaking. And it is this very thin plastic lining that recyclers can find hard to separate.

Sometimes the main challenges and limitations stem from the status quo – and the effort required to change the existing packaging and related machinery.

And that is precisely why switching from plastic to paper is more than just a material change; it pushes packaging producers to search for a way to close the gap and reach the same functional properties.

A material world

The environmental threat posed by plastic packaging is well known. The press and environmental groups have long stressed the dangers of plastic products, from their negative impact on the planet to destroying many ecosystems. In contrast, paper is often seen as the sustainable, environmentally friendly alternative — even though paper accounts for around 26% of total waste at landfills.

Reducing the quantity of packaging materials used for transporting and storing goods remains a key goal of the sustainable packaging movement. However, cutting back on packing materials without giving them enough care can have unintended consequences. Some packaging techniques that attempt to exchange one material for another cannot be applied before identifying an adequate packaging material.

Shoppers believe paper is the most sustainable option. In fact, Deloitte recently put the number of those who take this view as high as 60%. But in reality, the massive amounts of wood required in production, added to the fact that recycling the materials is not without issues, mean the choice is far more complicated than one might expect.

The stark reality is that replacing 400 million tons of plastic with biobased materials is impossible. The scale of plastic consumption demands a much more comprehensive approach that goes well beyond simply swapping one material for another.

There is no doubt that paper has been a significant beneficiary of the war on plastic. Mintel figures show paper and board packaging accounts for the largest share of the food packaging market today, rising from 49% in 2018 to a projected 54% in 2022. According to other forecasters, the direction of travel - replacing plastic with fibre-based solutions – will continue to gather pace.

But whether this kind of packaging is “more sustainable” is unclear. And with an astonishing 40% of plastics and 50% of all paper used to produce packaging in the EU, we have no time to lose in activating the transition towards reusable packaging.

Potential for the future

While biobased materials offer a promising avenue, we must address the larger issue: reducing consumption.

Upscaling solutions that fulfil the functionality, circularity, and cost criteria presents a key challenge, and it’s becoming clear that tailor-made solutions for each product group are the way forward.

Both plastic and paper have a role to play in the future. Plastics have great functionality and versatility; paper has an edge in recyclability as a renewable raw material with a globally widespread, well-working recycling infrastructure.

As long as humans have desired to move and preserve stuff, they’ve needed more and better packaging. Recyclability, carbon footprints, chemical use, consumer acceptance, and more must be factored into packaging choices. While there are no silver bullets, sustainable options are available for every scenario.

A ban on some single-use plastic items, including the supply and selling online and over the counter of single-use plastic plates, bowls, trays, containers, cutlery and balloon sticks, comes into force from 1 October 2023 in England. Other EU legislation could require 50 per cent of plastic waste to be recycled by 2025 and all plastic to be easily recyclable by 2030. With these changes in mind, eco-designers focus on alternatives to petrochemical-based plastics and finding new uses for recycled plastic.

There is no magic packaging. But that hasn’t stopped that simple narrative on single-use packaging (quickly) evolving to suggest as much. As plastic is pilloried, brands – keen to do something in the face of concerted pressure – have swung far too quickly towards other materials.

Aluminium, fibre, compostable and other novel materials have all benefitted. Sausage makers are shifting to cardboard trays. Wine is in bottles made of paper. And milk has been moved from (recyclable) plastic bottles to (harder to recycle) cartons. Whether these are progressive moves led by marketing or well-intended but ultimately poor decisions with unintended consequences can be debated ad infinitum.

The price of the greener option is often initially higher due to a lack of well-established supply networks and manufacturing procedures and the absence of economies of scale. However, as time goes on and innovation happens, more sustainable packaging will come to represent a low-cost alternative.

Any circularity strategy must also be successful for materials to be traceable. Companies must concentrate on learning as they expand if they are to build a traceability strategy that promotes circularity. They need to make sure that they learn about the sector and comprehend its dynamism. They also need to choose meaningful collaborations and realistic ambitions. They must put their attention on learning as they go. Prioritising data and selecting the right technology are also crucial for the strategy’s success.

According to the World Bank, global municipal waste generation is expected to increase from 2.01 billion metric tons in 2016 to 3.40 billion metric tons by 2050.

And there is no silver bullet solution. It’s not about swapping from one single-use lifestyle to another, but instead about changing our behaviour to balance convenience and sustainability and asking industry and governments to work together to drive the best environmental solutions.

Sustainability is messy. Sustainability is complicated and far from perfect. And we live in a very polarised world, where we can’t make a mistake for fear of being cancelled.

When it comes to sustainability, we need to say that we don’t know. That we don’t have the answers. That we are making the best choice at a given time while adopting a more transparent and, at times, more vulnerable approach.