Can paper be a viable alternative to plastic flexible packaging?

The use of plastic in flexible packaging has come under increasing pressure and scrutiny over the last decade as awareness of climate change and the environmental impact of packaging continues to grow. Paper is often touted as an environmentally friendly replacement for plastic, but is it a viable option?

Paper was one of the earliest forms of packaging providing an excellent solution to the needs of protecting and presenting goods. However, as a porous and hydrophilic material, its ability to provide long term preservation of goods – meeting the needs of increasingly long global supply chains – meant many paper packaging applications were slowly substituted with more durable plastics over the past four decades.

When we look specifically to the flexible packaging sector today, plastic-based flexible packaging accounts for around 93% of consumption, compared to paper-based flexible packaging, which accounts for just under 5%.

However, paper-based flexible packaging is now beginning to grow in popularity again as consumers view it as a sustainable alternative to plastic. A recent study by Two Sides found that 62% of consumers see paper packaging as better for the environment, and 70% said they were actively taking steps to reduce their use of plastic packaging. But how do the green credentials match up?

Paper versus Plastic

Both paper and plastic substrates have their advantages and drawbacks.

Paper offers a lightweight, highly formable material that is renewable, biodegradable and recyclable, and indeed is commonly recycled around the world with an established waste recycling infrastructure. Its drawbacks include moisture and grease resistance – which can be improved with the use of coatings – and poor barrier performance to gases.

Plastic – whether PE, PP or PET – offers a lightweight, highly formable option but it is not renewable or biodegradable being manufactured from fossil fuels. Recycling can be facilitated with mono-polymer flexible packaging designs, but the collection and recycling infrastructure is generally in its infancy for these flexible materials.

The key advantage plastic holds over paper is its inherent barrier functionality in extending shelf life of goods, thereby minimising supply chain and consumer waste. Plastics offer integral moisture and gas barrier performance – without the use of additional coatings – along with greater robustness and puncture resistance compared with many paper packaging solutions. Extended shelf life enables brands to smooth supply chains, avoid costs and bring more product to market in perfect condition, especially critical in today’s high inflation market situation.

What does this mean for future flexible packaging design?

Fundamentally, there is no ‘silver bullet’ when it comes to packaging sustainability. All materials have their benefits and drawbacks and it’s addressing the ‘bigger picture’ that is key in determining which material is the right one for a product application.

Despite being viewed negatively by consumers, the packaging industry has worked hard to innovate and develop plastic films that are ‘environmentally friendly’ to retain the essential advantages that plastics offer in packing perishable goods, in particular. This has included the development of biofilms (plastics based on renewable sources), using higher percentages of recycled content in films, as well as optimising design with monopolymers for recyclability post-consumer use.

There are also drivers for more sustainable plastic-based flexible packaging at a legislative level. Across the UK and European Union, initiatives like the Plastic Packaging Tax and EU Directives are forcing manufacturers, converters, and brands alike to seek out more sustainable packaging alternatives. These pieces of legislation reflect a general consciousness that is more concerned with end-of-life disposal than a holistic approach of reduce, reuse and then recycle which most brands now advocate.

What is the best solution?

There is no simple answer to this. Deciding whether paper or plastic is more sustainable ultimately depends on the application. However, the focus should be on reducing our reliance on single-use packaging, regardless of materials.

In terms of sustainability, the packaging industry must remain on the front foot by collaborating with local governments to develop improved recycling streams and end-of-life disposal systems, rather than focusing purely on substrate choice. Only then will the industry begin to make headway on achieving a more circular economy.

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Written by Dominy Jones