Paper packaging solution to plastics crisis

| 1st November 2018
Sunlight through the trees
Timber and plant-based packaging from recycled, certified and responsibly managed forests can replace plastic packaging.

When managed to internationally-recognised schemes like FSC or PEFC forests can deliver beautiful landscapes, clean water, and habitats for a range of wildlife.

Ever since Blue Planet II hit our screens last winter, plastic – and plastic packaging – has been at the forefront of the national and international policy debate. Indeed, Soil Association research suggests as many as 88 percent of people want to reduce their consumption of plastic packaging.

One of the great questions in the quest to reduce waste plastic is whether paper or card offers a solution to the plastic crisis. We know some products need to be packaged in plastic for food safety reasons, to increase shelf life or for ease of transportation. But for those items that don’t need plastic, do paper or card offer a credible alternative?

Morrisons recently announced it was bringing back the traditional brown paper bag for groceries in an effort to save an estimated 150 million plastic bags every year.

Completely illogically

Despite public concern about single use plastic, the decision was met with some scepticism by the Environment Agency and WRAP, the industry body for waste management. Indeed, many packaging producers have rushed to the defence of plastic as the sensible packaging solution for many products.

Some of the arguments against paper packaging are well-known – that it’s bulkier, heavier and takes more energy and water to make and transport. In other words, the carbon footprint of paper and card is actually greater than that of plastic.

These arguments ignore the work being done by some of the world’s leading cardboard manufacturers to increase levels of renewable energy use, recycle the non-fibre elements of processed wood to generate heat and electricity on site and dramatic reductions of the water used in their processes. Arguments also ignore the wider, long-lasting issues with plastic.

Soil Association Certification Forestry, as one of the biggest forest management and chain of custody certification bodies in the UK - certifying to both FSC and PEFC standards - is well positioned to inform this debate.

Plastic is designed to last - over 500 years! Yet, completely illogically, 50 percent of them are single use. An estimated 12.7 million tonnes of plastic end up in the ocean each year, including the great South Pacific Garbage Patch, estimated to be three times the size of France.

Cardboard production

While some plastics may break down into much smaller pieces over time, these tiny pieces become micro pollution that leech into waterways and the food we eat.

Researchers at the University of Manchester recently found that a British river has the highest levels of microplastic pollution recorded anywhere in the world. Most ocean plastic is at plankton level – alarming given that plankton provide 50 percent of all the oxygen we breathe. 

‘Compostable’ plastics – seen by many as a possible packaging solution – largely require industrial composting and can pollute the recyclability of ‘normal’ plastics if they get into the regular recycling stream.

While these plastics may one day provide a solution, the current lack of clarity on methods of disposal is a major hindrance to efforts to reduce the plastic that ends up as waste and in the environment.  

In contrast, the wood fibre used to produce paper, card and cardboard production is highly recyclable, with packaging materials having the highest recycled content of any consumer products.

Carbon sinks

The paper recycling rate in Europe reached a near theoretical maximum of 71.5 percent in 2015, up from just 50 percent in 1998. In contrast, figures released earlier this year show plastic recycling on the continent is languishing at 40.9 percent, despite global concern.

The paper industry has been a driving force in achieving this high recycling rate. Since 2000, the European paper value chain has been committed to increasing recycling, in part by joining efforts to remove obstacles that had previously hampered paper recycling in Europe.

These efforts to create a paper fibre loop offer the current EU-level discussions on the Circular Economy a clear and workable model to be followed. 

Forests managed responsibly are, of course, not just sources of a raw material. When managed to internationally-recognised schemes like FSC or PEFC they can deliver beautiful landscapes, clean water, and habitats for a range of wildlife.

They support tourism and well-being. They also act as carbon sinks, trapping more carbon within them than nearly all other landscapes. All things that fossil-fuel derived alternatives cannot do.

Recycled, certified

As demand for paper and card products increase in the wake of world-wide concern about plastic, the economic value of productive forests will increase.

Certified forests that meet independently verified standards on social, environmental and economic factors will become more important to reduce irresponsible loss of natural forests. Shoppers who want to purchase timber, paper and packaging products that are responsibly sourced should look for the FSC or PEFC logos for reassurance.

A shift away from plastic packaging is essential, and while such system change can seem daunting, with a supportive policy environment major shifts can happen quickly.

The landfill tax in 1996 and plastic bag levy in 2015 are good examples of this. In the meantime, timber and plant-based solutions from recycled, certified and responsibly managed sources can be a solution to much of the packaging we currently create from plastic.

This author

Kevin Jones is head of forestry for Soil Association Certification Forestry and is responsible for their global forest certification programme, certifying to FSC and PEFC forest management and chain of custody standards. For more on our work as a timber certification body, visit its website