Plastic vs paper debate builds momentum as Swedish research ranks paper-based packs most eco-friendly
03 Jan 2019 --- Switching material from plastic to paperboard can reduce the climate impact of packaging by 99 percent in some instances, according to a recent study conducted by IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute for Iggesund Paperboard (Iggesund). The study investigated some of the most common packaging types, including plastic packs, and found that in every comparison, paper generated the most environmentally beneficial performance.
Packaging light bulbs in plastic or paperboard, respectively, is the most extreme example in the survey. By switching from plastic to paperboard, it is possible to reduce the climate impact of the packaging by 99 percent, the study found.
In the example that was most favorable for plastic, a paperboard carton containing 500 grams of pasta was compared with the corresponding amount of pasta packed in a thin plastic bag. The conclusion was that the plastic bag has a 3.25x larger climate impact than the paperboard carton. This is despite the fact that the bag only weighs one-sixth as much as the carton and has significantly worse protective and stacking properties, according to Iggesund.
“Plastic is a fantastic material for many applications and we use it ourselves when producing paperboard for food packaging that needs a thin plastic barrier to protect its contents,” says Johan Granås, Sustainability Communication Manager, Iggesund. “But we believe that decision-makers in the packaging industry must know about the effects of their choice of material.”
“There are masses of packaging that cannot be made in anything other than plastic today. But there is also packaging made of plastic where it is easy to switch material without losing function at all – and it is logical to start there if we want to reduce packaging’s climate impact,” adds Granås.
For the paperboard packs used in the study, climate data for Iggesund’s paperboard Invercote was used. For the plastic materials, IVL drew on data from the databases used for lifecycle analyses. None of the paperboard packs used in the study are made of material from Iggesund Paperboard.
“This is a study that shows the climate impact of different types of packaging. The mandate to IVL was to be general. We do not know the climate data for each individual packaging. However, based on the recognized environmental databases, this definitely indicates the great importance of the choice of material,” Granås concludes.
Paper and paperboard have witnessed somewhat of a resurgence, fueled by anti-plastic sentiment and a growing global demand for designed-in recyclability. Not only is paper a naturally renewable, recyclable and compostable material, it can also add value to packaging with the appearance of “naturalness” in an increasingly eco-conscious consumer market. In terms of shelf-appeal, paper also provides an excellent printing substrate with potential for high-quality graphics to effectively communicate brand values (and sustainability credentials).
“As a natural, annually renewable resource supporting valuable eco-services such as carbon/water cycling and biodiversity, paper and paperboard offer distinct environmental sustainability credentials,” Richard Coles, sustainability expert and Director of Emagine Packaging, tells PackagingInsights.
“The raw material (wood) can be sourced from sustainably managed forests and biomass/renewable energy may be used to power modern mills. In particular, paper and paperboard are both readily recyclable and compostable and so, by definition, biodegradable,” Coles adds.
However, in stark contrast to the Iggesund study, a new US and Canadian study into the environmental effects of plastics has concluded that plastics are more sustainable than the material alternatives in terms of energy use, water consumption, solid waste, greenhouse gas emissions, ozone depletion, eutrophication and acidification.
Published last month, the study conducted by the Plastics Division of the American Chemistry Council (ACC) found that replacing plastics with alternative materials such as paper and paperboard, glass, steel, aluminum, textiles, rubber and cork would result in significant net negative environmental impacts.
Packaging suppliers are increasingly turning to paper and paperboard as an alternative to plastics. In some cases, such as UK supermarket Iceland removing all plastic packaging from its bananas in September and replacing it with a recycled paper band, paper enables a complete eradication of a material which has – rightly or wrongly – come to embody environmental scourge in the eyes of the consumer.
By Joshua Poole
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