Paper is not a proper alternative for plastics in food packaging

November 2023

by Manon Stravens  

Paper and board are increasingly used for food and beverage packaging. Paper packaging is marketed as an environment-friendly alternative to plastic packaging, which loses appeal and is increasingly banned. However, new research by Profundo shows that single-use paper-based materials are no solution to the problems created by plastic packaging when it comes to food packaging. They create deforestation, require enormous amounts of water and energy to produce and are hard to recycle because of the coatings and chemicals needed to resist fats and liquids. The only sustainable solution is to reduce our dependence on single-use products and materials.

Paper-based packaging in the food and beverage sector, which accounts for two-thirds of the total packaging market in Europe, presents multiple challenges throughout its lifecycle. First, the paper and packaging industries contribute to climate change, biodiversity loss and deforestation in the countries of origin. Every year, three billion trees are cut down for the paper-based packaging industry in among others Brazil, Sweden, and Finland. Most food packaging uses virgin fibres for food safety reasons or due to technical requirements. Only half of the paper and board produced for food packaging contains some percentage of recovered fibres.

Second, the pulp and paper industry is the world’s third-largest consumer of water: the production of one A4 sheet of paper requires around 10 litres of water. The industry is also the world’s fifth-largest consumer of energy, accounting for approximately 6% of global industrial energy use and 2% of direct industrial CO2 emissions. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA) the pulp and paper industry is not on track to reach its climate goals.

Hazardous chemicals

Another important drawback of the use of paper for food packaging is that, to make the material resistant to the fats and liquids of our burgers and drinks, it is combined with coatings, chemicals, foils and other protective materials. A beverage carton for example consist of about 75% paperboard, 20% plastics, and up to 5% aluminium foil. Whereas these multilayered food and beverage packaging materials are increasingly used in the food packaging sector, recyclability is limited as the materials are difficult to separate. Specialised plants are needed, of which only a few exist in Europe. Furthermore, paper packaging is often contaminated with food residues. This all makes the material less suitable to be recycled into new food packaging. One study even showed that plastic products were better recyclable in 74% of tested samples than paper composite alternatives.

Totalling 32.7 million tonnes of waste in 2020, the share of paper-based waste (41%) in the total waste produced in Europe is higher than the total of the two next largest waste streams combined: plastic (19.4%) and glass (19.1%). While the official recycling rate of paper and board in general in Europe is 71.4% in 2021, this percentage is considerably lower for paper and board used for food packaging. This is because of the technical difficulties with separating multi-layered packaging materials, but also because of the fact that in on-the-go settings, paper-based food packaging products such as cups and trays are rarely separately collected and, therefore, unlikely to be recycled.

Furthermore, many of the chemicals, including hazardous ones, used in paper-based materials are proven to migrate into food. Out of the 608 so-called substances of concern found in food packaging, 256 (42%) are used in paper and board packaging materials. These chemicals could end up in our bodies and in the environment, creating potential health risks, as they are known to, among others, cause cancer and disturb the human reproductive and hormonal system. This makes it very worrying that a complete overview of chemicals used in the production processes of paper and paperboard packaging materials is unavailable.

Plastic pollution

Profundo’s research on paper packaging was published in October 2023 by Rethink Plastic Alliance, Zero Waste Europe, the European Environmental Bureau, Fern, and the Environmental Paper Network. As could have been foreseen, the plastics industry has widely reacted to the report, trying to use it for its own lobby. But the fact that paper-based food packaging is no alternative to plastic packaging should by no means be understood as an encouragement to use the latter to package our foods and drinks. Previous Profundo research has shown that billions of plastic finance are entering an industry that drives fossil fuel extraction, resulting in more plastics entering our oceans and rising greenhouse gas emissions. Plastics are responsible for at least 3 to 4 % of global emissions. Evidence that plastic pollution harms people, animals, and the environment is piling up.

Furthermore, it should be stressed that the problems described in this study are specifically related to food and beverage packaging. Using paper for other types of packaging could be a more sustainable option than plastics, provided that substantial levels of recycled content are used, and recyclability is guaranteed. Brands should also be more transparent about the impact of the packaging materials they produce, regarding emissions, resource depletion and waste creation. This may spur innovation and competition and help consumers to make informed choices about what they buy.  

The evidence brought together in these studies, including the new study on paper-based food packaging, calls for a halt to the production and use of single-use packaging materials. One disastrous material should not simply be replaced with another one. Instead, we all should reduce our dependency on single-use materials. Companies should support that by designing reusable, recyclable, and long-lasting products. They should take up end-of-life responsibility for the products they have put on the market by paying for their reuse and recycling and for cleaning up pollution, be it caused by paper-based materials or plastics.

EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation

In the ongoing negotiations on the EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation, the above mentioned realities of disposable paper-based food packaging should not be ignored. The outcomes of the study clearly show the need to move away from ever-polluting single-use packaging and move towards well-designed reuse systems. Marketing single-use paper-based packaging products as sustainable alternatives to plastic packaging is misleading citizens and policy makers.

To curb the growing levels of packaging waste driven by overreliance on throwaway materials, the EU must adopt effective rules to reduce single-use packaging dramatically. This is also of utmost importance to reduce pressing impacts on forests, climate, biodiversity, water use and human health. Furthermore, the widespread use of composite packaging materials and the waste they create should be curbed. Legislation should restrict the use of harmful chemicals and urge transparency of companies on the type of chemicals that paper-based packaging contains. 

For further information, please contact Manon Stravens,


(Photo: Unsplash in collaboration with Getty Images)

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