Paper or plastic? That is no longer an easy answer

Paper is an environmentally sound alternative to plastic. Besides, what if it doesn’t? In a series of recent studies, researchers presented two granola bars to hundreds of shoppers, and asked which was more environmentally friendly: in a plastic wrapper sealed with an extra layer of paper, or the same plastic-packaged bar, minus the paper. . By a large margin, research subjects chose the plastic-plus-paper option, even though they both contain the same amount of plastic and the over-packaged granola bar is clearly much less environmentally friendly.

Plastic has become the world's most abusive material, especially for single-use packaging.  Not only is this harmful to the environment;  It has become socially unacceptable.  (pexels)
Plastic has become the world’s most abusive material, especially for single-use packaging. Not only is this harmful to the environment; It has become socially unacceptable. (pexels)

This is an understandable, if illogical, mistake. Plastic has become the world’s most abusive material, especially for single-use packaging. Not only is this harmful to the environment; It has become socially unacceptable. Polls consistently find that consumers want to see plastic replaced. Consumer product companies, hoping to protect their brands from the wrath, are looking for sustainable solutions.

Paper has become a favorable alternative. Consumers see it as “natural”. But it’s not always the green alternative that advocates seek – or claim. In some cases it can be worse than plastic.

As long as people want to move and protect goods, they need more and better packaging. The ancient Greeks manufactured large quantities of ceramic wine vessels; Mid-century Americans bought convenient Ziploc bags by the billions. But in 1000 BC or 1970, packaging had to be cost-effective, easily transported and durable.

In the last two decades, however, brands and consumers have begun to demand an entirely new asset in their packages: sustainability. It is an amorphous concept. For some, durability represents reusability. For others, it suggests a commitment to reducing carbon emissions and combating climate change. But most agree on this, at least: plastics don’t qualify. Among other perceived problems, they are derived from petrochemicals, and they persist in the environment if not recycled or disposed of properly.

For many brands, the solution to the plastic-packaging revolt is to embrace paper as a natural alternative. There are ways to do this, some sincere and some not.

For example, many brands recognize that unbleached (brown) paper packaging (or packaging that appears unbleached) projects a natural, sustainable image to environmentally-conscious consumers—even when the product is sold as single-use. Others try to boost their sustainable packaging credentials by replacing plastic with recyclable paper. For example, earlier this year Nestlé SA piloted paper KitKat wrappers in Australia. It was an impressive technical achievement, albeit one with limited impact. Nestlé produces billions of KitKats annually; In Australia, it introduced “over a quarter of a million” in paper wrappers.

Most of these paper solutions focus on what happens after the package is thrown into the trash or recycling bin. But end-of-life isn’t — and shouldn’t be — the most important sustainability benchmark. Other factors are arguably more influential. For example, what types of greenhouse emissions are associated with different packages? The answers are often surprising.

A recent McKinsey & Company study of milk containers in the United States found that paper cartons (which must be wrapped in plastic) generate 20% more greenhouse emissions than plastic jugs over their lifecycle, from production to disposal. Other plastic packaging, from meat packages to shopping bags, showed more climate benefits on paper.

And even if a brand focuses on the end-of-life — or recyclability — aspect, there are complications. Food-grade paper packaging is often lined with plastics that make the packages non-recyclable, or they are only recyclable in certain locations. KitKat’s paper wrappers are lined with foil which the company recycles in Australia. However, Nestlé did not respond to questions about whether it could be recycled in North America and Europe. If they are not recycled and they end up in landfills, they can become a powerful source of methane, a greenhouse gas.

Meanwhile, plastic recycling is not the disaster it is often portrayed to be. PET, the resin used in water and soda bottles, is highly recyclable and in high demand by manufacturers looking to make everything from carpets to new water bottles. At least 180 plastic recyclers in the U.S. handled PET and other resins last year. But there are also significant problems. Although packaging is technically recyclable, excess food scraps are often ineligible, whether they’re plastic or paper.

Raw material challenges are not limited to recycling and petrochemicals. Producing virgin paper for packaging has its own challenges, starting with the destruction of carbon-emitting trees. As the demand for paper packaging increases, who will supply the pulp? Sustainable forests are a growing and important option, but consumers and brands will face questions about whether single-use paper packaging represents the best use for slow-growing resources. Consumers can decide they don’t, and regulators can follow.

This does not mean that paper packaging is unstable. Rather, like plastic, this seemingly natural material has its own environmental pros and cons. Unfortunately, the highly emotional debate about marine plastic has made it difficult and foolish for brands to provide nuanced explanations for their packaging choices. Instead, they must wrestle with how to reach consumers whose perception of sustainability is frequently biased in favor of less-than-perfect solutions.

Rebalancing those assumptions, and laying the groundwork for an honest discussion about packaging sustainability, won’t be easy. But it should start with transparency. Brands with resources must voluntarily disclose the emissions associated with their packaging decisions, placing the number near the recycling symbol. To ensure the validity of those numbers, regulatory bodies must begin sketching the criteria for calculating them.

Over time, these environmental “nutrition labels” can spur competition and innovation, benefiting consumers, the environment and brands alike. Better yet, such labels could become a competitive incentive for brands to reduce their packaging altogether. If consumers learn to trust labels, “paper or plastic” becomes a less fraught question—it’s just a matter of which material is more sustainable under the conditions of use.

Complex problems rarely have simple solutions. Consumers, above all, must understand that complexity if they have any hope of achieving sustainability.

This story is published from the Wire Agency feed without modification to the text. Only the headline has been changed.

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