Paper or plastic? This question is currently being hotly debated. For consumers and brand manufacturers, packaging made of paper or other sustainable raw materials is way ahead in the rankings, but there are also good arguments for plastic.
by Karen Gellrich
When a severe storm with gusts of wind and heavy rain swept over the district of Offenbach on 18 August 2019, leaving toppled trees and electricity pylons, fallen fences and cellars filled with water, packaging manufacturer Seufert in Rodgau was one of the victims –: a downburst had torn away the production hall roof. For managing director Thomas Pfaff and his employees, this was yet another worry, as he – like the rest of the plastics industry – has been struggling against strong headwinds in their daily business for some time. A manufacturer of transparent packaging and films, Seufert has already had to lay off 16 per cent of its workforce because of the current widespread “plastic bashing”.
Less than a week before the thunderstorm, Svenja Schulze, the Federal Minister for the Environment, Nature Conservation, and Nuclear Safety (BMU), had set off a media storm with the announcement that she wanted manufacturers of disposable articles to share the costs of city cleaning. She said that this was a reaction to the trend towards more disposable articles, noting that in some cities, this is leading to a tsunami of rubbish – particularly in public parks and busy streets. The legal basis should be established by 2022 at the latest and be based on the EU Single Use Plastics Directive. The German Association of Local Utilities wants to find out the proportion of single use articles in public waste bins, streets and parks. Association president Michael Ebling said that more application of the polluter-pays principle is needed. “If manufacturers had to participate financially in the consequences of their environmentally damaging ex-and hop business models, new incentives for low-waste alternatives would be created for all players.
According to the BMU, the German population produce 220 kilogrammes of packaging waste per capita per year. More than 50 per cent is generated by industry and commerce, and around 104 kilogrammes by households. Packaging made of paper, board or cardboard accounts for the largest share, at around 8.1 million tonnes. This is followed by packaging made of plastics (3.1 million tonnes), glass (2.8 million tonnes) and wood (3.2 million tonnes).
“Nobody is even asking how our waste has ended up in the world’s oceans all these years, while we in our country are regarded as the pioneers of a supposedly functional recycling economy. And obviously nobody cares where all the money collected by DSD for the Green Dot has gone after almost 30 years. Why – against all environmental considerations – we weren’t steadily investing in new technologies, instead of exporting our waste”, Seufert managing director Thomas Pfaff is annoyed. Germany does not have a plastic packaging problem, but a recycling problem that has not yet been completely solved. “Along with the planned reduction of the share of plastic, we are simultaneously increasing the share of other materials in packaging waste.” De facto, the volume of waste wouldn’t be reduced, there would simply be a change in the mix of materials. There would still be the same very high quantities of packaging waste.
Paper is benefiting from plastic bashing
The trend away from plastics and towards paper and other sustainable packaging materials is unstoppable. According to the German Pulp and Paper Association (VDP), the German paper industry produced 22.7 million tonnes of paper, board and cardboard in 2018. Industry sales rose by 5.4 per cent to EUR 15.5 billion. Packaging paper and board maintained growth (+1.6 per cent), and now account for 53 per cent of production volume. However, this contrasts with the continuing strong figures for the plastics processing industry, whose German Association of Plastics Converters (GKV) is reporting a 3.2 per cent increase to EUR 15.18 billion in the packaging sector for 2018.
To recycle significantly more than today, the brand industry and retailing must quickly convert their packaging solutions so that a maximum can be completely recycled. Many FMCG giants plan to achieve this by 2025. Aldi Nord and Aldi Süd also plan to reduce the ratio of material weight to sales for packaging in their standard range by 30 per cent compared to 2015. Their main competitor Lidl intends to reduce the use of plastics by a fifth by 2025. Other retailers are also driving the shift towards greater sustainability. Edeka is currently celebrating ten years of cooperation with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), while Rewe is testing a general retreat from film packaging in its organic fruit and vegetable range. And dm-Drogeriemarkt is exploring with top suppliers how consumers can be made more aware of issues such as the use of recycled materials and correct packaging disposal.
The Mondi Group is able to respond flexibly to these requirements because it is active along the entire value chain of packaging and paper production – from forest management and the production of pulp, paper and plastic films to the development and manufacture of efficient industrial and consumer goods packaging. Peter Oswald, CEO of Mondi Consumer Packaging, is well aware of the dilemma his customers face: “The choice of a particular packaging solution is not always obvious, given the complexity of supply chains and the many ways in which the concept of sustainability can be interpreted.”
“Where possible, use paper, where logical, go with plastic” – the guiding principle of Mondi, to which all measures in packaging development are subordinated. On the one hand, paper has the lowest CO2 footprint of all packaging types, is very easy to recycle and already has recycling rates of over 80 per cent in Europe. On the other hand, plastic plays a decisive role in flexible packaging which protects valuable products such as food against ending up in the waste prematurely by extending their shelf life. The CO2 impact remains low. Due to its barrier properties, plastic is indispensable in many areas and – if recycled – also sustainable.
Design for recycling is the order of the day
This makes it important to think about recyclability of packaging right in the planning stage. “Design for recycling” is the order of the day, and for this the following questions need to be clarified. What is the end use and what barriers are required to protect or extend the product’s shelf life? What are the logistics and how can it be ensured that the product is packaged as efficiently as possible? What are the storage conditions? What certification and procurements are required to ensure that customers have sustainable packaging? What sorting and recycling infrastructure exists in the countries where the products are manufactured and sold?
“Packaging innovation is more important than ever,” says Thorsten Plutta, Managing Director of PRO-S-PACK Arbeitsgemeinschaft für Serviceverpackungen e. V., who takes a critical view of current developments: “Sustainability is a lifestyle issue. On the one hand, consumers want to do something good, but on the other hand they don’t want to spoil their enjoyment of consumption.”. Marketing departments were only too happy to take advantage of this trend to position their products as green.
Meanwhile, Dr Kurt Stark, Director Business Development and Sustainability at Buergofol in Ingolstadt, hopes that the unjustifiably poor image of plastic packaging will not last.
“Currently, as a result of the debate in politics and the media, consumers believe that paper is better than plastic.” It’s true that paper involves less pollution because it decomposes after a time. But plastic does much better in terms of the climate balance – i.e. in terms of energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions. “Production of one kilogramme of beef causes approximately 13 kilograms of CO2 emissions, while the packaging only contributes 200 grams, which is less than one sixtieth. If the meat spoils due to inadequate packaging, this constitutes major ecological damage. There is no obvious better or worse, you always have to look at both sides of the coin. “Plastic packaging will continue to grow,” Stark is convinced, even if some food manufacturers change their machines to paper. “This is just hype right now! In two or three years, people won’t give it another thought, recognising that for various reasons they simply can’t do without plastic.”
Barrier-coated papers are the current trend
Meanwhile, supporters of paper packaging are relying on high-performance barrier coatings to create a moisture barrier or prevent gas migration, especially in moist foods. Depending on the application of the product and the functional requirements, an additional substrate, which can be of fossil or biogenic origin, is added to create such a barrier. Such composites usually have a very small percentage of coating – often a polymer – on the board and can be recycled. In Germany, according to the Fachverband Faltschachtel-Industrie (FFI), this coating percentage is often less than 5 percent, meaning that this packaging can be disposed of with paper for recycling.
However, a barrier coating was out of the question for the Goerner Group’s latest product – at the express request of the customers, as Managing Director Elisabeth Goerner explains. At FachPack, the Klagenfurt company will be presenting a new type of packaging solution for fatty, dry foods such as chocolate and baked goods (photo). This packaging is based on cellulose, water and pigment, and aims to replace single-use plastics with fibre-based materials at almost comparable costs. “Over the last few years, we have had to learn, often painfully, that sustainability can’t be more expensive than the current single-use plastics if it’s to be accepted as a real alternative by the packaging industry,” is how Goerner describes the stumbling blocks in the way of product development. It was particularly challenging in the areas of toolmaking and pigment formulations. The innovative strength is bundled in the Goerner Bionics division, whose products have already reached market maturity: Together with Nestlé, for example, two packages were developed in Klagenfurt, each a combination of presentation and transport packaging. “One is a pure moulded pulp product, the other a combination of our two manufacturing processes, moulded pump and folding box production,” reports Goerner.
As a result of public pressure and the passage of the Packaging Act, which forces distributors to register with the central packaging register, a process of rethinking is emerging among retailers, brand manufacturers and the packaging industry, aimed at making packaging more recyclable and increasing the use of recycled materials. Standardised laboratory processes make it possible to compare the recyclability of different packaging and to identify potential for improvement.
One example is the method PTS-RH 021/97 for evaluating the recyclability of paper-based packaging materials. Here, the repulpability and potential for contamination for further use in paper production are examined. Dr Tiemo Arndt, Head of Research & Transfer at the Papiertechnische Stiftung, believes the trend is towards hybrid combinations such as those used for meat packaging. These consist of a paper carrier to which an easily separable laminated plastic film is applied. Recycling is separate, with the paper component going to paper recycling and the film laminate going to plastics recycling. However, this requires intensive consumer education for implementation. Arndt has also observed a change of heart among manufacturers: “Public debate about litter, pollution of the oceans and microplastics is prompting brand manufacturers to take a new look at all their products.