Paper or plastic? How to make the most sustainable packaging choices

We are all well aware of the challenges facing our environment as a result of years of poor waste management and bad packaging decisions. The answer to sustainable packaging – the ideal solution being – it should avoid waste, have a low carbon footprint, be made of renewable materials, be recyclable or compostable at end of life, and be material and cost efficient. Sounds easy? That’s right – it’s not. 

Packaging fulfils many different purposes – most importantly protecting, preserving and promoting the items inside – and each packaging material has certain advantages over others depending on its end use. At Mondi, we believe paper should be used where possible, and plastic when useful. To choose the most sustainable solution, the application of systems thinking within a broader circular approach is needed. 

There is no doubt that plastic has an important role to play and must not be written off completely. For example, the barrier properties of plastic help to extend the shelf life of products and therefore prevent food waste – with minced or ground beef lasting up to 26 days longer when packaged properly. When you factor in the associated resource loss, such as water, energy or land, it is clear that food waste is a major contributor to global warming. Comparatively, the production of plastic has a small carbon impact relative to the production of the food it carries and so can play a key role in mitigating climate change. Plastic is also necessary for medical products and other applications where sterility and hygiene is paramount.

On the other hand, when it comes to waste and the end-of-life impacts of materials, paper can be seen as a clear winner. Paper offers many benefits – it is naturally compostable and currently one of the most recycled materials around the world, not to mention much stronger than people give it credit for. Equally, as a truly renewable raw material, paper doesn’t contribute to wider environmental problems when sourced from responsibly managed forests. There is a widespread misconception that fibre-based packaging is driving deforestation, however, responsibly managed forests protect trees by giving them a value so that the land is not converted to make way for other uses. Equally, as trees grow they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere as part of a natural carbon cycle.

Paper and plastic have different advantages and sometimes the most fitting solution combines the best properties of both. Our PerFORMing removable product, used for delicatessen items like cheese slices and cold meats, is an example of how the benefits of paper and plastic can be brought together to produce sustainable packaging. The package is 80% paper-based, where the shallow paper tray has a thin plastic coating to extend the shelf-life of the food content and avoid waste. This plastic coating can be easily removed, allowing the paper tray to be 100% recyclable across Europe. As a result, 70% less plastic is used than a conventional plastic tray and there is a 70% reduction in CO2.

When making sustainable packaging choices, a holistic approach is needed which takes into account the entire value chain. Mondi’s focus is on being sustainable by design, moving away from only thinking about materials to a broad approach of sustainable systems and circular economies. By continuing to collaborate and innovate with key partners across the value chain, businesses can each play a part in addressing the issues of packaging, waste management and mitigating the impact of climate change.

Gladys Naylor, Group Head of Sustainable Development, Mondi

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