Paper: Who’d Have Thought It Would Be the Answer to Plastics?

In recent years, consumers have become increasingly concerned about the use of plastic packaging.

A 2017 survey by grassroots environmental group A Plastic Planet, for example, found 81% of people were concerned about the amount of plastic packaging being thrown away and 91% backed the introduction of plastic free supermarket aisles.

In 2018 the BBC aired Blue Planet II, and the interest in finding solutions to plastic waste pollution became a major focus for the UK government, who released a consultation to gain the public’s views on banning single-use plastics.

Many businesses have decided not to wait for the results of this consultation while others feel it doesn’t go far enough.  Last year, over 180 major companies including Tesco, Unilever, Nestlé, Birds Eye and Boots, signed the UK Plastics Pact, committing to eliminate single-use plastic packaging from their supply chains and replacing all plastic packaging with reusable, recyclable or compostable alternatives.

What, though, are these alternatives?  While some businesses are looking for technological solutions, others are turning to a more traditional product, one that has been around for 2,000 years – paper.

Paper has a long tradition of being used as packaging (archaeologists have found mirrors wrapped in paper from as early as the 2nd Century BC), but it wasn’t until the mid-1800’s that the use of wood-pulp to produce paper-based products made it much more affordable to produce paper. This was followed by the invention of paper bag cutting machines, making the use of paper as packaging much more commonplace.

Today, more than 400 million metric tonnes of paper and cardboard are produced worldwide each year; over 50% is used for packaging paper.

Benefits of paper packaging

One of the main benefits of paper is that it’s a renewable resource, one that can be re-used and recycled much more easily than plastic: the most recent UK government figures show almost double the amount of paper and cardboard (81.9%) is recycled compared to plastic (44.9%).

Even if paper ends up in the rubbish, it decomposes with little harm to the environment, unlike plastic: on average, a paper bag takes one month to break down while a plastic bag takes ten years.

Paper packaging is a flexible and affordable way to preserve, protect and transport a wide range of items.

Cardboard (or containerboard), for example, is strong, sturdy and comes in a range of sizes, making it ideal for shipping everything from household items to works of art; paper bags are perfect for shoppers wanting to take home groceries and store food such as coffee, tea, snacks, or sweets; and paper sacks make shipping bulk dry goods easy and affordable.

Paper bags generally have flat bases, unlike plastic bags, which make them stable and easier to store on shelves or in cupboards; they are also safer as you cannot suffocate in a paper bag and paper is much less toxic than plastic. Cardboard packaging is generally boxed-shaped, making it easier to stack, reducing the amount of space needed in warehouses, along with costs to businesses. All paper packaging is easy for companies to brand, making paper packaging a great marketing tool as well as a practical method for storing and transporting goods.

What next for paper packaging?

As consumers push for more sustainable packaging, companies are looking for ways to give their customers what they want.

McDonald’s, for example, recently announced it would make the change from plastic to paper straws in May 2019, and Morrisons are moving to paper bags too.

Beyond this, paper packaging manufacturers are looking at innovative ways to produce paper and package products.

In Germany, the US and Canada, for example, sweet manufacturers are looking at packaging their products in edible paper while in California, one company has been funded to impregnate compostable coffee cups with seeds from local trees and plants while another has developed a paper bottle that can safely be used with liquids including water and laundry detergent.

As a result of these changes, the market is set to grow considerably, with some estimates suggesting the global green packaging market will reach $237.8 billion by 2024.

This presents huge opportunities for paper packaging manufacturers to develop packaging for products typically packaged in plastic and for companies to attract consumers searching for eco-friendly options when making a purchase.



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