Comment: Pushing back on paper packaging

Brands have been drawn towards paper packaging, but is fibre’s free ride on the green wave coming to an end? David Burrows reports.

The next five years will bring continued and significant substitution of plastic with fibre, in part due to environmental factors. That’s according to Neil Osment from NOA, a consultancy specialising in the paper packaging industry.

There have been sharp price rises in paper, board and cartons, he explained at the recent Foodservice Packaging Association (FPA) environment seminar. Supply shortages will also come towards the end of the year or the beginning of 2023 as the availability of commodities like starch, which is used to glue paper together, becomes stretched. Paper mill capacity is already being squeezed.

Still, Osment thinks “the direction of travel will continue to be replacement [of plastic with fibre packaging]”.

That doesn’t mean the material should have a free ride as a substitute for plastic though.

Paper chase

With the world pointing its finger at plastic, brands have unsurprisingly been drawn to paper. Footprint’s 2022 packaging reportnoted the high profile of paper packaging as plastic is vilified and taxed. At the Packaging Innovations show in Birmingham in May there were plenty of fibre-based suppliers on show. Interest in these materials is “accelerating” suppliers claimed as companies looked to “future proof” their packaging formats.

For now, consumers remain content too. Paper often features high up on the choices the public perceive to be most sustainable. People “feel good” about paper but food brands can run into problems, explained experts from Cambridge Design Partnership in a presentation about the future of packaging in Birmingham.

There is the temptation to put things in paper that don’t work with the material, for example. Or adding barrier coatings, and so flooding the paper stream with non-fibre contaminants. Some of these are obviously plastic and brands wanting a ‘recycle’ logo through the OPRL will need to limit such layers to 10% come January. The make-up of other barriers remains unclear. Questions should be asked.

Widespread use of PFAS, or ‘forever chemicals’, to improve water resistance in paper and board (as well as compostables) also deserves interrogation (as NGOs increasingly are doing).

The high levels of water usage and water pollution risks in the paper production chain also merit more attention.

The reliance on virgin fibre still receives little airtime. Purveyors of paper packaging will talk of sustainable forests sucking in carbon. More of their products means more trees planted, which is good news they say. But it’s wishful thinking, and dangerous, surely, to continue to let disposable packaging dominate, whatever the material.

Sustainability scuffle: plastic versus pulp

Food companies continue to make these potentially unsustainable switches but some have begun – finally – to question their paper push. Some have switched back to plastic from card. Others have been panned for replacing widely recycled plastics with tougher to recycle cartons. Whether this will translate into an anti-paper stance is unclear. And, to be clear, the points I am making are not pro-plastic but in support of truly sustainable decisions.

There is acceptance among paper packaging manufacturers that scrutiny has intensified. Fibre’s “free ride” to date could be coming to an end, one expert noted at the FPA event. One representative from a major retailer raised ‘carbon concerns’ about plastic to paper swaps (Green Alliance has noted similar fears). Robert Thompson, packaging manager at Coop food, told those at the innovations show that carbon intensity is “the next phase” of the chain’s work on packaging. 

Most moves these days will have to be eyed through a net-zero lens. Matt Morris from the Cambridge Design Partnership told me that it’s hard for companies to develop a coherent strategy on packaging at the moment. Consumer preferences, regulations and technology are all shifting, he explained. An objective view of the pros and cons of different materials is also tricky to come by. “Life cycle assessment is the gold standard but it’s not standardised,” he explained. 

An LCA can of course tell you what you want to hear. The paper-packaging lobby’s research showing disposables are “better for the climate” than reusables in quick service settings could be a case in point (but we can’t check because the LCAs aren’t made public). One review of LCAs claimed reuse beats single-use in fast casual dining settings across “every category”. The carbon benefits of reusables are not always as clear-cut as they seem, either.

Dizzy with disposable

We are going round in circles. And yet, we are not. These single-use swaps are simply not sustainable. They are just simple. Whether plastic or paper – or aluminium or glass or compostable or whatever – recycling is by-and-large the least best option in a circular economy. Systems don’t change and resources are still eaten up in a largely linear approach. In 2022, no business should have a free ride down that path.

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