How a 5,000-Year-Old Product Can Help Solve Today’s Plastic Waste Crisis

by Omar Asali, Chairman & CEO Ranpak Holdings

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An immense mass of plastic hidden within the packaging supply chain plays a pivotal role in the global plastic waste crisis. This plastic contributes to irreversible environmental damage that future generations will inherit in their rivers, forestlands, and oceans.

Of the estimated 400 million tons of plastic produced every year, 40%, or 160 million tons, is used exclusively for packaging and typically used once and discarded. We can and must do better.

The Ugly Truth About Recycling

Our recycling industry simply cannot keep up with the volume and types of plastic we consume. Waste management companies get mired in municipal bureaucracy. Unfavorable economics can’t support the resources needed to recycle most plastic materials.  And our 25-year dependence on exporting plastic waste to China came to an abrupt end in early 2018 when it realized the impact plastic was having on its environment.

The tragic result is that 91% of all plastics end up in landfills, incinerators or the ocean. Sadly, the World Economic Forum estimates that, by 2050, the amount of plastics in the ocean will outnumber fish by weight.

While straws and grocery bags have garnered attention, plastic used in packaging is a 160-million-ton part of this growing problem.  We encounter a substantial amount of this plastic every day in the form of protective packaging – the material that protects, wraps or cushions products during the shipping process. The majority of protective packaging solutions in use today – bubble wrap, foam padding, air pillows, Styrofoam, etc. – is comprised of complex chemical compounds that cannot be easily or economically broken down and recycled. Air pillows and bubble wrap are a menace to recycling centers because they clog the machinery and cost plants time, money, and damaged equipment. As a result, even when consumers do their part by putting plastic packaging in the recycling bin, much of this is never actually recycled and takes hundreds if not thousands of years to decompose.

Redefining Sustainability One Fiber at a Time

There is a solution. As the plastics crisis hits fever pitch, an increasing number of environmentally conscious companies are committing huge resources to removing harmful materials from the manufacturer-to-consumer exchange and turning to biodegradable fiber-based solutions for their protective packaging needs.

These companies recognize that only by reducing the role of plastics throughout the manufacturing and supply chain can excessive waste be removed from the protective packaging equation and replaced with materials that are truly recyclable.

And the answer they increasingly turn to is a 5,000-year-old product: paper.

Paper is taking a leading role in the sustainability movement as a viable, economical, and environmentally friendly alternative to plastic and foam. Innovative paper packaging solutions offer a wider variety of versatile, multi-use protective packaging alternatives than plastic counterparts. Through the application of new technologies, paper solutions are typically more flexible and achieve greater throughput in factories than plastic alternatives and are just as effective at protecting products than plastic and foam – in many cases more so.

It gets better when we consider the environmental impact. Approximately 70% of paper is recycled each year in North America and Europe, compared to only 5% of plastic packaging materials, while the rest naturally decomposes.  Moreover, many of today’s paper-based packaging solutions are composed of recycled and virgin wood paper pulp from sustainably sourced trees and government-certified mills, to ensure responsible sourcing and forestry practices.

Thankfully, today’s consumers increasingly understand this. A recent consumer survey found that 9 out of 10 consumers would choose paper-based packaging or labels over other materials because of increasing awareness that paper packaging is recycled in greater volume than glass, plastic, steel and aluminum combined.

Incremental Change in a Circular Economy

Just as the plastics crisis crept up on the world over a period of years, reducing the problem will come through gradual change.

A commitment to circular economy decision-making is good for business, good for corporate citizenship, and good for the planet. Circular economy solutions feed the supply chain but provide equitable, recyclable solutions, resulting in business and consumer value, cost savings, and environmental savings. Whether that means replacing plastic straws with paper ones, trading out hidden plastic protective packaging with paper, or banning single-use plastic bags in all cities. The culmination of all of these incremental efforts contributes to significant and long-lasting change over time.

This month, Maine became the first state to ban foam containers. Discount food market chain Aldi recently pledged to achieve fully sustainable packaging by 2025 through reusable, recyclable, compostable materials, in good company with Whole Foods, Walmart, Trader Joes, Target, and Albertsons, to name just a few. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy Initiative is playing a major role in rallying some of the world’s biggest brands and global governments to commit to reducing plastic packaging materials by applying circular economy principles.

Consumer habits are tough to change. But when it comes to important, incremental change within the protective packaging industry, there is little sacrifice to make. No one is asking consumers to change their favorite ice cream flavor or stop buying products from the brands they love. They’re going to get the products they want, delivered in a box with protective packaging inside.

The future-defining question is: Do we really need plastic packaging in that box?