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Sustainable paper packaging: good for people & the planet

Besides thinking about what this prolonged pandemic has been doing to our economic, physical and mental health, we need to think - just for a moment at least – what impact this is having on the environment.

You might think “not much”, because as we haven’t been travelling – driving to work or flying away for a holiday – so surely that’s given the planet a break.

Maybe a little. For a while. But when we look at the total emissions of greenhouse gases for all of 2020, there was very little reduction in emissions which we can take credit for.

Experts report that we did see a 7 per cent dip in global emissions in 2020, compared to 2019, but that didn’t stop us all from adding more unwanted green-house gas to the atmosphere. And already we’re seeing emissions go back up to pre-pandemic levels.

Unlocking the economies, industries and transport will see global emissions for 2021 back to the levels of 2019 or higher.

Freighters have continued to fly the air ways and container ships have continued to ply the oceans with loads of food and other goods – whether we really need them or not – and delivery boys and girls have been making sure they get to you at home. Transported by motorbike, van, car or truck.

So besides this all adding up to a massive use of energy, we also have to consider the added amount of packaging involved in the supply, shipping and delivery.

And what happens to the packaging material? If it’s plastic – and most of it is around the world – it’s goes to waste. Into your bin, down the rubbish chute or onto the rubbish truck. It’s understood that 95 per cent of the plastic packaging and covering for products go to waste.

A lot of it might end up in dumps or landfill, which are known to generate millions of tons of methane, a greenhouse gas more potent that CO2.

A lot will be incinerated - not good for the atmosphere either – as while some of the resulting gases can be used to produce “clean electricity”, the cycle involves burning what started out as a fossil fuel.

But most obviously damaging to the environment is the amount of waste – largely plastic – that ends up in the rivers and oceans of the world.

An Australian research group Minderoo established that single-use plastic – that’s most of the packaging material you have - accounts for over a third of all plastic manufactured every year, and the majority of plastic that’s thrown away. Equal to 130 million tonnes a year. https://sourceofplasticwaste.org/

They also found that almost 98 per cent of single-use plastic is made from virgin fossil fuels – plastic created without any recycled materials. Plastic produced for the very first time.

And plastic that isn’t, or cannot be, recycled.

If plastic is so bad, why do we keep using it – or accepting it - as packaging for our goods?

Is there an alternative?

Yes. There is, and there always has been.

Paper and cardboard – made from wood pulp or fibre - were the predominant material for packaging goods of all sorts for many years. And both paper and cardboard are among the most recycled materials around the world.

The wood fibre in the paper and cardboard packaging can be recycled many times – between four and seven times the industry says – but very much depending on what its used for.

In the study by Two Sides in the United Kingdom, consumers were asked to choose their preferred packaging material based on a range of environmental, visual and physical attributes. These packaging materials were paper/cardboard, plastic, glass and metal. See the fuller Two Sides report here.

The study revealed that paper/cardboard was the favoured packaging choice for 10 out of 15 attributes. 55 per cent of UK consumers preferring paper packaging as better for the environment, 51 per cent for being easier to recycle and 77 per cent for being home compostable.

Consumers are right to believe that paper is easier to recycle. In Europe, 84 per cent of paper packaging is recycled, making it the most recycled packaging material in the world. Glass has a recycling rate of 74 per cent, metal 80 per cent and plastic 42 per cent. (Eurostat, 2019)

That’s a very high number for plastic recycling in the UK, compared to everywhere else. The global average is closer to 5 per cent of plastic which goes for recycling. Singapore records a similar figure for plastic.

The study also showed that consumers are demanding that brands, retailers and supermarkets do more to reduce the use of non-recyclable packaging. The study revealed that 32 per cent of UK consumers believe that brands, retailers and supermarkets are the most responsible for reducing the use of non-recyclable packaging.

The Two Sides study also points out, that at the touch of a screen, consumers can search for a product, order, and have it safely delivered to your door within 24 hours. But consumers are becoming more aware of the impact that packaging has on our planet, and they are increasingly demanding that retailers do more to ensure their packaging is recyclable.

When ordering products online, 67 per cent of UK consumers prefer those products to be delivered in appropriately sized packaging, showing a desire to reduce unnecessary waste. A further 54 per cent of UK consumers prefer products to be delivered in paper packaging, likely because of its highly recyclable qualities The older generation (65+ years old) has a higher preference for the products they order online to be delivered in paper packaging (64 per cent).

It would be good to have a similar survey conducted in Singapore and Southeast Asian countries, as we’re not sure we would see the same awareness of, or consumer demand for, sustainable packaging.

Ben Gunneberg, PEFC’s CEO, is calling for the greater use of only safe and circular materials. Producers must ensure that products are safer for both humans and the environment, and the materials used to make them – and package them - can be reused without causing contamination or waste management problems.

He insists that while wood-based fibre packaging can provide an important solution, it is vital that it is sourced from sustainably managed forests.

“To ensure continued availability of suitable forest fibre for the production of paper and packaging, it is essential - in addition to recycling - to manage forests sustainably,“ he says.

Sustainable forest management certification enables forest owners to provide assurances that they manage their forests in line with challenging environmental, social, and economic requirements. Balancing people, planet and profit.

It’s important for consumers, Mr Gunneberg believes, so they can easily identify such products through the PEFC label, which is exclusively available for products coming from certified, healthy forests.

Consumer environmental awareness and demand for sustainable products and packaging have noticeably increased. This is being reflected by the move away from single-use plastics, says Christopher Wong, senior vice president and global business unit head for industrial paper at Asia Pulp & Paper (APP), a PEFC certified supplier.

He points to products such as Foopak Bio Natura in the range of recyclable food packaging for Europe, which has “outstanding moisture and liquid resistance, is fully recyclable, industrial and home compostable, and biodegradable”. The paperboard engineered with unique multi-layer, plastic-free coatings especially designed and refined to package food and drink.

There’s some evidence that shows the paper and packaging supply chain has made a promising start over the last 20 years to become more sustainable on several fronts:

  • Certified, well-managed forestry,
  • Responsible production processes,
  • Efficient use of materials, while still maintaining the integrity of the product,
  • The ability to separate the product after use,
  • Turning the raw material into the next phase of recycled pulp to go into the next product.

All of these elements are key in the life of the raw material. That why wood fibre the ideal for paper, printing and packaging.

Another notable producer of certified packaging materials is the Metsa group from Finland, who make it very clear that the consumer must have a choice to buy goods packed in renewable and sustainable packaging. The consumer must look for look for certifications in the packaging, so that you know that the material used is renewable, traceable and from responsibly managed forests.

Metsä Group and forest owners planted 270 million seedlings in Finnish forests between 2010 and 2020. This summer, the figure will increase by more than 35 million seedlings. Metsä Group supplies forest owners with native tree species that occur naturally in Finland.

This is clearly to demonstrate that taking fibre from forests to produce paper and packaging is not depleting a natural resource, but harvesting from trees that are planted for the purpose.

We can find more examples in Asia, where producers are coming up with innovative paper and packaging solutions good for people and the planet.

Here are some examples:

  • Thai Beverage introduced PET bottles using plant-based ingredients. The “replace” component refers to the replacing of pack types such as plastic with more recyclable alternatives.
  • Winking Seal Beer Co launched canned bottled water in Vietnam, seen as more recyclable than PET bottles. The “recycle” aspect comprises both greater recycling and use of recycled material for packaging production.
  • Danone and Coca-Cola introduced 100 per cent recycled PET for their bottled water brands Aqua in Indonesia and Viva in the Philippines respectively.
  • Malaysia’s Teo Seng Paper Products produces sturdy egg trays made of recycled newspapers and corrugated cartons, certified by PEFC.

Opinion Piece by Ken Hickson

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