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Paper vs. plastic: which is the most sustainable choice?

Gladys Naylor assesses how the benefits of both plastic and paper raise broader questions about the most viable solutions

The European Union recently voted to declare a climate emergency. This is a significant turning point, reflecting the rapid escalation of the climate crisis despite efforts to reduce damage to the environment. While there are many factors influencing climate change, plastic pollution has become the ubiquitous symbol of the degradation of our natural environment and has brought the need for sustainable packaging to the front of public consciousness. 

Packaging serves many purposes: protecting content during transport and storage, promoting content to the customer, preserving content to lengthen lifespan and reduce waste.  So, how do you decide what is more important in the climate crisis? The need to minimise food waste, make fragile products such as medicines more accessible to people in remote places, or the need to reduce packaging to eliminate waste and CO2 emissions used when manufacturing packaging itself?  

To add another layer of complexity - there is no easy answer when it comes to deciding what the most sustainable material choice for packaging is.

Available options for sustainable packaging

To add another layer of complexity - there is no easy answer when it comes to deciding what the most sustainable material choice for packaging is. There are so many variables to consider around raw material sourcing, functionality, recyclability and the like. Paper, plastic, glass, metal – each material has its advantages depending on use, and a different environmental impact.

Many Life Cycle Assessments do not take into consideration waste pollution or the end-of-life impacts of materials, nor the benefits of using a truly renewable raw material in production, like wood for producing paper. At Mondi we believe paper should be used wherever possible, and plastic only when useful. 

There is no doubt that plastic has an important role to play, for example, for medical applications and preventing food waste and associated resource loss (which is a significant contributor to climate change); where possible, using paper is preferable as it’s a renewable raw material that can be responsibly sourced and widely recycled.

Life Cycle Assessments frequently deem paper bags to be less environmentally-friendly than plastic ones. It is true that the levels of energy and water consumption during the paper production process is higher, and high-density plastic shopping bags can perform better than low-quality paper bags in terms of durability and waste volume. However, paper can be easily recycled at scale – in fact, it is one of the most commonly recycled materials worldwide. Even if paper ends up in the natural environment, it is naturally compostable and will break down, unlike all other packaging materials. 

There is a widespread misconception that fibre-based packaging is driving deforestation and contributing to wider environmental problems. However, responsibly managed forests protect trees by giving them a value so that the land is not deforested to make way for other uses.

There is a widespread misconception that fibre-based packaging is driving deforestation and contributing to wider environmental problems.

Working forests actually play a critical role in ensuring the long-term health of our planet. Managed responsibly, forests producing fibre-based products can be part of the solution to the global climate crisis. A circular approach, whereby harvesting does not exceed annual growth and conservation areas are respected, maintains the health of forests and ensures a continued supply of wood and other forest products and services without deforestation or degradation. 

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Considering the right way forward

As a leading global packaging and paper producer, with 80% of our business being fibre-based, we support a landscape approach to ensure that our forests are protected, continue to function and provide benefits in the long-term. This involves a network of significant conservation areas, plus ‘wood harvesting’ areas, linked together in a mosaic landscape – we advocate this approach for our industry and others.

We set aside 24% of our own forests for conservation in order to maintain biodiversity. By investing in our paper-producing infrastructure, we also improve energy efficiency and reduce overall carbon emissions. This allows us to release 93% of the water we withdraw from the environment for manufacturing back into the aquatic environment after treatment. 

This is the fifth year that Mondi is working with WWF in a global partnership, and our relationship with WWF South Africa goes back over two decades. As part of this we focus on our stewardship of forests, climate and energy, freshwater and other ecosystems. We are also a WWF Climate Savers member, committed to the transition to a low-carbon economy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions across our entire value chain.

We are also a WWF Climate Savers member, committed to the transition to a low-carbon economy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions across our entire value chain.

We take our environmental responsibilities very seriously and promote environmental stewardship in our sector. As such, developing sustainable packaging solutions whether from paper or plastic is, and has been for a long time, at the very heart of our business. 

One of our most recent fibre-based products is a paper food tray, which can replace the plastic trays for food such as sliced cheese or meat commonly found in the deli sections of many retailers. Our paper trays reduce plastic use by up to 70% and carbon footprint by about two-thirds when compared with the previous packaging, and importantly there is no compromise for the retailers on shelf life. REWE Group, one of Austria’s biggest retailers, currently uses these trays for its organic cheese. 

Encouraging the change

In 2018, we set up our EcoSolutions team to support our customers in finding the most sustainable solutions for their packaging needs, reducing the volume of raw materials used, innovating with recycled materials and recommending products specially designed for recycling. We are supporting our customers to make changes such as switching from plastic-based packaging to a fibre-based solution or transitioning from rigid plastic to flexible plastic and thereby save up to 70% of the material needed.

At a time when the world is scrambling to reduce global waste, both paper and plastic packaging are necessary: one can’t wholly replace the other as they each have distinct advantages and uses. 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.