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A new report from Rabobank warns that consumer demand to replace plastic packaging with paper is not a silver bullet in the pursuit of sustainability – citing higher energy consumption, increased carbon emissions, and the addition of extra materials that could prevent recyclability or biodegradability as contributing factors.

The report emphasizes that brands’ transition into more sustainable materials is equally as motivated by market competitiveness as it is by ethics or legal requirements, with sustainability claims said to suggest to consumers that a product – in this case, packaging – is responsible and of high quality. For many brands, this shift involves replacing virgin plastics with pulp and paper alternatives.

Industry players, some of them plastic producers, are investing in paper alternatives, which Rabobank takes as a sign of the trend’s popularity.

“However, and contrary to what consumers perceive, replacing plastic with paper and pulp is not that sustainable or easy to implement,” asserts Jim Owen, senior analyst, Packaging & Logistics at Rabobank. “Pulp and paper solutions are not the cure-all solution many believe them to be.

“In fact, it can introduce its own set of ecological – and business – complications.”

Namely, these concerns include the use of more material to achieve the same robustness as plastic; this is expected to require energy-intensive production processes and cause paper packaging to become up to five times as expensive as the plastic it replaces.

Processes like logging and pulping are said to result in higher carbon emissions that can, according to Rabobank, have a more severe environmental impact than plastics.

Furthermore, paper packaging can be limited to products that do not require additional protection to extend their shelf life, like foodservice products and non-perishable goods; and some paper products require protective coatings that can affect their compostability or recyclability at end-of-life.

Legislative efforts set to fight against the environmental footprint of packaging are in development across the world, from the EU’s Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive to federal bills and state recycling laws in the US and negotiations surrounding the UN’s Global Plastics Treaty. Rabobank believes that the work underlines the packaging industry’s commitment to achieve sustainability and circularity in its packaging solutions.

The news comes after a previous study by Amcor suggested that own-brand products packaged in minimal, recycled, and/or paper packaging are becoming increasingly popular among consumers.

Another Rabobank report also feared for European paper packaging producers, suggesting that rising energy costs and the focus on decarbonization in both supply chains and developing regulation could threaten competitiveness.

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