When you think about it, the packaging industry has come a long way in recent years. Companies are becoming increasingly aware of the need to produce sustainable, eco-friendly packaging options that prioritize both the planet and consumers. While there's no denying that plastic packaging has been the go-to option for the longest time, research findings prove that paper packaging is a more environmentally-friendly alternative. We will take a deep dive into a scientific paper outlining the CO2 comparison between paper and plastic packaging, and why paper may indeed be the more sustainable option for packaging.
According to a recently published study, packaging outperformed plastic packaging when it comes to CO2 emissions. The study reveals how fibre-based materials such as paper can improve the environmental compatibility of food packaging. It involved analyzing the carbon footprint of both paper and plastic packaging across all stages of the packaging life cycle, including raw material extraction, transportation, manufacturing, and end-of-life disposal.
The results show that paper packaging has a lower environmental impact than packaging produced from fossil materials, when a similar packaging weight is taken as the basis. In fact, the values for plastic packaging are between 3 and 5 kg CO2 eq/kg, while the values for paper packaging are less than 1.5 kg CO2 eq/kg.
To be fair, most paper applications require a higher packaging thickness and weight to match plastic´s performance. But even after considering paper´s yield disadvantage, paper outperformed plastic in the study. Below 2 concrete case studies, one for a flow-wrap and one for a stand-up pouch.
A flow-wrap is a flexible packaging option that is suitable for products such as snacks, candies, and baked goods. Despite needing more paper than plastic per package, the paper flow-wrap had 30% lower CO2 footprint. This is significant considering that flow wrap is a popular packaging option across different industries.
In the stand-up pouch use case for chocolate in powder, the paper packaging CO2 was 68% lower!
Several factors contributed to paper's lower carbon footprint in the study. Firstly, the raw materials for paper packaging, such as wood pulp, have a lower global warming potential. Additionally, paper manufacturing involves greener energy, such as biomass, when compared to plastic manufacturing.
Another critical factor guiding the sustainability of paper packaging is that it is biodegradable, compostable, and recyclable. Paper can be reused and repurposed to create new products: CEPI estimates that over 85% of paper & cardboard in Europe is recycled, whereas the OECD estimates that in 2019 only 9% of produced plastic was recycled. Thus, single use plastic waste can end up polluting our oceans, negatively impacting marine life and wildlife in general, as it takes hundreds of years to break down.
As we move towards greener packaging options, it's essential to consider the entire life cycle of the packaging material. From the sourcing of raw materials to the manufacturing process and disposal at the end of the product's life, every step counts. It's pretty clear that paper packaging is the more sustainable option when it comes to CO2 emissions. It has a lower carbon footprint, is biodegradable, and generates less waste than plastic packaging. While there is still a long way to go before we can eliminate plastic packaging altogether, it's crucial that we take small steps in the right direction, and opting for paper packaging is one of the most significant steps we can take. Packaging designers, engineers, and marketers have the power to design packaging that prioritizes sustainability and cares for our planet.