In an increasingly eco-conscious world, plastic is falling out of favour with consumers. Single-use plastics that are often used in food packaging, are being dropped. The top choice for its replacement? Paper.
Plastic has been singled out as a key culprit impacting our planet negatively. It has also become a very emotional issue amongst consumers, as we are constantly seeing distressing images of plastic rings around the necks of turtles, and dead whales with stomachs full of plastic. Not only does plastic harm wildlife and cause pollution due to its longevity, but the process of creating plastic contributes to carbon emissions and the use of fossil fuels.
So, I want to see how paper measures up to plastic, both in terms of function and regarding sustainability. Can paper achieve the same results as plastic when used in packaging, particularly for food? Is it realistic at this stage to go entirely plastic-free in favour of paper-based alternatives? Is paper truly the eco-friendly hero it has been hailed as?
I want to try and get the most balanced view possible of both materials, and there is no doubt that both plastic and paper have their pros and cons.
To evaluate the sustainability of paper and plastic, it’s important to look at the whole life cycle: from sourcing, to processing and production, and then to end of life.
Paper and Plastic Production
Regarding its creation, plastic is notably unsustainable. It is made from non-renewable fossil fuels, with around 4% of the world’s oil supplies being used for plastic production. There are also considerable CO2 emissions when plastic is made. About three tonnes of CO2 is created for every tonne of plastic made, compared with around 0.8 tonnes of CO2 for every tonne of paper. From this perspective, paper is clearly the more sustainable option.
This said, paper production is not always entirely eco-friendly. A huge amount of water goes into paper production. According to the BBC, you need between two and 13 litres of water just to make an A4 piece of paper. Further, a huge amount of energy goes into paper production, too.
It is also important to look at where paper is sourced from. Many plastic lobbyists have criticised paper as contributing to global deforestation. Indeed, paper that is sourced from the world’s forests would have a negative impact on the planet as it would contribute to the destruction of habitats and mean that there are fewer trees to absorb CO2. However, much of the paper that is manufactured today is sourced from controlled plantations that are solely for this purpose, and so it does not contribute to deforestation. Products with FSC certifications mean that the trees used are from a sustainable source.
So, when we compare the production of both plastic and paper, it is clear that paper has the environmental edge. Although it is not perfect, paper can be sourced from sustainable sources and leads to lower CO2 emissions.
End of Life
By ‘end of life’, I mean what happens to these materials after use. Can they be recycled, or will they end up in landfill or our oceans?
When it comes to recyclability, paper is a clear stand out. Paper is easily recycled through a relatively simple process of repulping, and it is much easier to create 100% recycled paper products than 100% recycled plastic products.
Whilst a lot of plastic is indeed recyclable, there is still a large amount of plastic packaging that cannot be recycled at all. Have a look at my blog on household grocery brands for more on this. Further, the process of recycling plastic tends to be more complicated than paper. It involves heat moulding and blowing, and plastic can be contaminated with things like ink, and so recycled plastic is less consistent than new plastic. Additionally, unstable resin can break machines as its reaction to heat can be unpredictable, which can lead to wasted resources. For this reason, manufacturers need to find the right balance between recycled and virgin plastic, and it’s harder to create an 100% recycled plastic product.
This is not to say that recyclable plastic is not a good option, as it is much superior to the alternative, however paper is certainly the more sustainable option from this perspective.
Plastic is very good at doing its job. It is strong, durable and flexible. In the food industry, it is a vital part of extending the shelf life of consumable products, and its propensity to be completely transparent is a bonus in allowing customers to see what they are buying before purchase.
Therefore, to be a viable replacement for plastic, paper needs to be able to fulfil these same functions (unless there is a total overhaul of the supply chain and the way we buy food). To successfully meet these criteria, paper usually needs to have a coating or barrier, to ensure that it can maintain rigidity when filled with moist food and products. This is also important for keeping food fresh.
A main challenge of switching to paper is that it can mean it compromises the shelf life of food, which some argue may lead to an increase in food waste. In this case, we would essentially be replacing one environmental problem with a new one. So, it is vital that paper packaging has an effective coating. Further, this coating must not interfere with the recycling process.
There is also the issue of transparency, as customers like to see the food they are about to purchase. This can be difficult to achieve with paper, although some touch-transparent products are now emerging, where you can see the food inside when in contact with paper.
At present, then, there is still work to be done on ensuring that using paper in packaging does not compromise the effectiveness of packaging.
What Are We doing?
At farepac, we are committed to developing eco-friendly alternatives to plastic packaging. For example, our Earthpouch is made entirely of paper, with a coating on the inside that acts as a barrier. This means food stays fresh and the packaging stays intact, and the pouches are fully recyclable. We also ensure that the paper we use is FSC certified, so our customers can be confident that it is sourced sustainably.
We continue to find innovative ways to incorporate paper, without sacrificing shelf life and freshness.
So, Can Paper Replace Plastic?
Whilst it is not inherently 100% eco-friendly, paper is a more sustainable option than plastic. Being in a climate emergency means that sustainability must be prioritised, however this needs to be done carefully, ensuring that material switches do not cause a huge rise in food waste. It is also important to ensure that paper-based products are sourced from sustainable places and can disposed of effectively at the end of the life cycle.
It wouldn’t be realistic to say that paper can replace plastic entirely at this time. But perhaps in the future, with further development, it could become a much more viable option. The next steps that need to take place are ensuring that paper products fulfil the same needs as plastic products in terms of shelf life extension and preventing food going off. It is also important for paper packaging to be able to maintain its shape in different conditions.
Farepac have already created some excellent paper-based products that are able to replace plastics, which is a huge step in the right direction. We will continue to facilitate these sustainable switches as we make further developments.
ELLIE BALDERSON, MARKETING