A panel at last week’s Plastics Recycling Conference dug into the question: “The Switch to Paper Packaging: Fad or New Norm?” | Big Wave Productions/Resource Recycling Inc.

Paper is on the march against plastic, taking its place in several forms of protective packaging, food wrappers, beverage containers and bread bag clips as manufacturers pivot to a more commonly recycled, and seemingly more sustainable, material. 

But the swap brings its own financial and environmental drawbacks, and manufacturers and brands should stay focused on whichever underlying concern they’re trying to address, several experts said during a panel last week at Resource Recycling’s Plastics Recycling Conference in Texas.

“No silver bullets in sight, but paper packaging does have a lot of promise,” said Eadaoin Quinn, sustainable packaging senior manager at Mars Inc., which has switched several candy bar brands to paper-based wrapping in Australia, the U.K. and other countries in recent years. “We need alternatives.”

Balancing the strengths and weaknesses of paper versus plastic is a tricky task, said Daniel Cluskey, product stewardship engineer at Printpack. 

Paper fiber is both renewable and often touted as one of the most frequently recycled of all post-consumer materials. But plastic is good at what it does, providing lightweight and “absurdly thin” protection against moisture, light and other undesirable factors, Cluskey said. 

For paper to get close to matching this performance, there needs to be more of it, requiring more natural resources to grow the trees, process the pulp and ship the results, Cluskey said. 

Taking this into account may put paper packaging on par with plastic in terms of overall environmental footprint, according to a recent report from the Dutch banking and financial services company Rabobank. 

Paper packaging also requires a longer and more costly development process, which has led many of Printpack’s buyers to call off paper-based packaging projects. 

“They look at the price and say, ‘Maybe we’ll wait until people are more angry with us,'” Cluskey joked. 

Yet flexible film packaging’s recycling rate is abysmally low compared to paper’s, Quinn said. Plastic brings the baggage of a litany of environmental and health effects.

Mars’ goal is clear: “We are looking to get to a material that is less likely to end up in the natural environment causing harm,” Quinn said. 

Myles Cohen, who moderated the panel and has made a splash in recent years by asserting that paper’s recycling rate is significantly lower than reported, noted that recyclable and recycled are two different things. With some paper items’ small sizes, plastic lamination or other characteristics, “it’s going to take this very long detour of getting to the landfill,” he said. 

Quinn said that hasn’t been Mars’ experience, however, with the company working with paper mills throughout the process and insisting that its candy wrappers have a usable fiber yield of 80% after pulping. Paper wrapper rollouts in multiple countries have taught important and worthwhile lessons, she added.

“We are not looking to launch papers that end up in landfill,” she said. While the perfect paper wrapper doesn’t yet exist, “switching to a base material that is closer to that is an important step.”

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