Rethinking packaging: three steps to shift to paper and a circular economy

The circular economy is built on the principle that the life cycles of materials and resources can be preserved, extended and ultimately given back to the supply chain once their original intended purpose has ended.

3 min read

Imagine getting to a place within our existing industrial economy that allows for this across the board. The positive impact on the sustainability of our planet would be monumental.

One step in the right direction is rethinking packaging.  

According to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation’s recent report, the use of plastic has increased twenty-fold in the past 50 years and is expected to double again in the next 20.

This same report also states that a staggering 32 percent of plastic packaging escapes collection systems, generating significant economic costs, including from ruining natural ecosystems, such as the ocean, and clogging urban infrastructure. If this trend continues, by 2050, there could be more plastic in the sea than fish.

The impact goes beyond litter – plastic is also intensive to produce. If the current strong growth of plastics usage continues as expected, the plastics sector will account for 20 percent of total oil consumption.

These alarming figures show how it is crucial to find new, sustainable packaging solutions.

So, what can we do to replace this unhealthy system with the circular economy? Here are just three steps to get us moving in the right direction.

Step 1: Understand the value of paper vs. plastic.

Recycling is the most prevalent recovery pathway for packaging; using paper is one way to ensure packaging becomes something usable again, through the circular economy.

Recycling rates of paper are far greater than plastic. Consider the facts:

  • Only 14 percent of plastic packaging is collected for recycling. Compare that to paper, which gets recycled at a global rate of 58 percent, and you quickly realize how impactful the shift from plastic to paper can be.
  • Approximately 44.2 million tons of paper and paperboard were recycled in the United States in 2017 for a recycling rate of 65.9 percent, which was among the highest compared to other materials.
  • Recycling one ton of paper reduces greenhouse gas emissions by one metric ton of carbon equivalent. And according to the most recent figures from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), saves enough energy to power the average American home for six months.

Consumers can make more ethical and sustainable decisions every day, but for the world to truly move to a circular economy, we need businesses to step up. Many brands have already adopted the shift from plastic to paper, including Boxed Water and Just Water, two packaged water companies that use sustainable and biodegradable paper as opposed to plastic. And in an exciting development, Nestle, a major player in the bottled water game, is making strides towards switching their packaging to paper.

Food brands that want to contribute to this shift and reduce their environmental impact can look at leveraging suppliers who use recycled content paper products that are compliant with FDA standards for food-grade packaging.

Step 2: Seek out the right suppliers

Every year, Sustana Fiber recycles enough recovered paper material to save over four million trees. The 100% recycled fiber, EnviroLife®,  is then used to make new food-grade packaging papers and products. EnviroLife® is compliant with FDA standards for food-grade packaging and is an excellent source for food brands looking to reduce their environmental impact with recycled content in their sustainable packaging.

This innovative technology’s impact on climate change is 26 percent lower than the average non-recycled fiber and requires nine times less water to produce.

We saw the success of EnviroLife® in action with our recent Cup to Cup initiative – an innovative collaboration between Sustana Fiber, our supply chain partners, and Starbucks. It demonstrated that coffee cups can be recycled and turned into new cups in a sustainable way.

Step 3: Communicate your sustainability goals

Sustainable packaging is also a great opportunity to communicate your green goals. Taking the steps to create this packaging requires and demonstrates a deeper level of commitment—one that is tangible and that customers can literally hold in their hands. Think paper cups printed with the story of how the paper came to life via recycled materials, so consumers can see that they’re supporting a circular economy.

Signage promoting green brand partners is another great way for businesses to show customers their commitment to sustainable practices. Ensuring that marketing teams, management, and even floor staff are educated and aligned on what sustainability looks like, and why it’s important, can help separate brands from the competition.

The next time you’re considering how to become more sustainable as a business, think about the circular economy and how you can apply this concept to choosing suppliers, and packaging options, that reduce environmental impact and support sustainability.