There’s been intense public focus on what is known as the “Pacific trash vortex,” a massive collection of mostly plastic debris funneled into a concentrated area by the currents of the North Pacific Gyre. Ocean plastic is now front and center, but it is only part of the plastic problem.
To be fair, plastic is not all bad. Plastic usage varies widely and while plastic grocery bags, water bottles and packaging materials are rightly-criticized by environmentalists as being part of the increasing volume of “single use” plastic, some plastic used in other industries can actually be the most sustainable alternative. In the aerospace industry, plastic is used to create more durable, lightweight parts. Plastic is virtually indispensable in protecting medical devices and extending the shelf life of medications and food. And the plastic used in laptops and mobile devices has allowed for smaller and lighter iterations.
The reduction of materials gleaned by using plastic in these applications means less carbon emissions related to manufacturing and lower emissions associated with transporting devices to market. Even the vilified, single use plastic water bottle can save lives by providing fresh water to communities in the disaster relief situations we see with mounting regularity.
But today the largest market for plastic by far is packaging, and as the spotlight on plastic has grown ever more intense, brand owners are seeking ways to replace plastic packaging with renewable, biodegradable, recyclable fiber–based solutions. A recent Apple white paperhighlights a case study where innovative fiber-based packaging design changes resulted in an 84% reduction in the use of plastic for a particular product.
The critical element here is that the functionality of the packaging cannot be sacrificed by these fiber-based solutions. Packaging that does not protect a product through its logistical and arduous journey to consumers will need to be returned and replaced. That means more trucks on the road burning more fossil fuel and generating more GHG emissions. It also means that the product itself, and its full cradle-to-grave footprint needs to be replaced. And consider the impacts of spoilage in the food industry. It is estimated that 40% of food is wasted today, and packaging that does not preserve food compounds the issue.
A recent study conducted by IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute compares the climate impact of different packaging materials, packaging the same goods and doing the same job/providing the same functional criteria of the packaging solution. It includes both “cradle-to-gate” and “gate-to-grave” elements using unbiased European data for plastic, glass and metal production versus paperboard production data. Findings from the study show the overall climate impact of paperboard packaging solutions is substantially lower than that of glass, metal and plastic.
GHG emissions from manufacturing can be avoided by using plastic alternatives, and the simple fact is, the only way to solve the ocean plastic pollution problem is to stop using plastic. Estimates of how long plastic takes to completely biodegrade range from 450 years to never, according to an article published in the June 2018 issue of National Geographic. Most types of paper and paperboard, by contrast, will biodegrade in our oceans within six months. Given that statistics presented in the IVL study reveal the climate impact of a packaging solution can be reduced anywhere from 70% to 99% by using paperboard, the decision a company makes as to which material to use may be the one that has the single greatest climate impact.
Eventually the forest of the future will provide renewable, recyclable and biodegradable alternatives to everything from glass and plastic to batteries and steel. Today, success in redesigning packaging to eliminate or reduce plastic use in favor of paperboard lies at the confluence of design innovation and fiber-based materials development. Environmental leaders in manufacturing need to ensure their design team is well-versed in material choices and their respective environmental footprints. They need to know what sorts of functionality is provided by different types of fiber and where the fiber in the different substrates they choose is sourced. They also need to understand how it is nurtured from seed to final product to yield better strength and durability characteristics. In short, this calls for collaboration between brands, forest products companies, chemical companies and packaging converters.
Neal Haussel is Director, Strategic Business Development & Sustainability for Iggesund Paperboard Inc. Iggesund Paperboard commissioned the IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute study mentioned above.