The Plastic Packaging Problem
448 million tons of plastic was produced in 2015. Of that, approximately 161 million tons was used for packaging materials. Unfortunately, plastic packaging is used for less than six months before it is discarded, and even then most of it never gets recycled or incinerated.
According to the EPA, the amount of recycled plastic containers and packaging in 2015 was 2.2 million tons, or just 14.6% of all plastic packaging generated that year. Where does all of that plastic go? Most of it ends up in landfills, but an alarming and dangerous amount ends up in our oceans.
In the EU, as much as 500,000 tons of plastic waste enter the oceans every year. At this rate, globally, plastics in the ocean will outweigh fish (pound for pound) by the middle of the century. By 2025, the ocean is expected to contain one ton of plastic for every three tons of fish; by 2050, more plastics than fish.
Scientists at the Tara Expeditions Foundation who are studying plastic degradation and interaction with living organisms see no alternative but to “drastically limit single-use plastics, better manage waste on land, prevent plastics from reaching the sea and invent new materials.” From a materials standpoint, paper is a viable alternative that can help reduce the amount of plastic packaging in circulation around the world. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, “Paper offers inspiration – a widely used and recyclable packaging material that is relatively benign if leaked into the environment.”
The Time for Packaging Sustainability is Now
According to the European Commission, 94% of consumers agree that industry and retailers should try to reduce plastic packaging. We also undertook a study to understand the attitudes and behavior of consumers around the globe regarding packaging. As part of the Billerud Consumer Panel, we asked more than 3,000 consumers based in 16 megacities around the world what the most important aspect of packaging development is. The top three answers were:
- Reduce food waste
- Increase recycling levels
- Reduce plastic littering in the oceans
For global brands that focus on reducing or eliminating plastic packaging (including plastic packaging components like handles and hooks), the reward may be a larger portion of the growing number of eco-conscious consumers around the world. The Billerud Consumer Panel found that 64% of respondents indicated that they may change a product/brand for another if it clearly provides a more sustainable choice. The Consumer Panel also found that 72% of respondents were willing to pay more for a product that is packaged in a sustainable way.
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How to Evaluate Paper vs Plastic Packaging
The UK government’s 25 Year Environment Plan outlines how the country plans to be recognized as the leading global champion of a greener, healthier, more sustainable future for the next generation. Specifically, the plan outlines ways to reduce the use of plastics that contribute to pollution. In the Plan, the UK government encourages producers to take more responsibility for the environmental impacts of their products.
If you’re a packaging designer, engineer or anyone else responsible for packaging decisions (or even sustainable measures) within a large organization, there are a few tools and resources available that can help you measure the environmental impacts from packaging. These resources can also help you make a case for corrugate if you’re looking for opportunities to reduce packaging spend on materials, manufacturing and shipping.
Life Cycle Analysis
LCAs consider the entire product life cycle and are used to assess environmental impacts at all stages, from raw material extraction through materials processing, manufacture, distribution, use and disposal. Packaging designers and engineers use LCAs to make informed decisions that ultimately reduce the environmental impact of their packaging solutions.
For example, in one LCA study conducted by the IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute, commissioned by Billerud, researchers analyzed the impact of various concepts for shopping bags and cement sacks and found that Billerud paper bags have a “remarkably low impact” compared to the plastic bags in the study. For instance, it has a 59% lower global warming potential than recycled low-density polyethylene (LDPE) plastic bags.
Environmental Product Declarations
EPDs make it possible to compare the performance of different packaging materials and products from an environmental perspective throughout their life cycles, and to calculate the environmental impact of the finished packaging products. The declarations present information such as emissions that affect the climate, acidification, the ozone layer and over-fertilization. When requesting an EPD from a packaging materials supplier or OEM, make sure the results are verified by an independent third party and include information regarding:
- Acidification Potential – Acidification refers to the decrease of pH value in terrestrial and water systems.
- Eutrophication Potential – Eutrophication is the disturbance of the nutritional balance in the soil and waters due to an added amount of nutrition.
- Photochemical Oxidant Formation Potential – Hydrocarbons and volatile organic carbons (VOCs) contribute to ground-level ozone formation.
- Use of Resources – Resources used in the upstream, core and downstream phases, including renewable and nonrenewable resources and secondary resources, such as electricity and water use during manufacturing.
Challenge Conventional Packaging
If you’re ready for smarter, more sustainable packaging, Billerud can help. In addition to offering fibre-based renewable packaging materials, we also help large global brands develop, implement and optimize packaging programs that yield significant supply chain savings.