Paper and planet

Plastic to paper, fossil to fibre

Achieving a sustainable, circular economy requires both immediate action and long-term thinking in the materials we use.

By John L. Walters
Illustrations by Mike McQuade

Environmentalists, progressives and futurologists in spheres both public and private have long argued that we should reduce our dependence on fossil-based materials such as plastic, and that we should reduce waste and emissions by questioning each product’s use. American writer Bruce Sterling, in his 2005 book Shaping Things, argued that we should examine critically every stage in every product’s life-cycle, from inspiration to landfill, from manufacture to re-use.

The trend for ‘plastic to paper’ is far from new, but it is becoming more evident in the ways big companies are packaging and displaying their goods, using paper and card where plastic used to be the norm. In sectors such as food, fashion, technology and cosmetics – where packaging design is a crucial part of the product’s appeal –designers are having to think harder about the materials they specify.

Juan Mantilla, head of creative at Kiko Cosmetics (see Pulp 15), notes that not many designers thought about an object’s life cycle until very recently. ‘Put simply,’ says Mantilla, ‘you should start designing by thinking how your object – whether publication, label or package – will end its days.’

Mattia Bernardi, associate partner at Bain & Company consultants, makes a similar point: ‘Innovative paper products can replace traditional plasticised papers used for so many things, from book covers to mono-portion snacks or food supplements, from garment tags to shopping bags as we move from multi-material to a renewable mono-material.’

You could frame ‘plastic to paper’ as ‘fossil to fibre’. There is an urgent need to replace plastic with materials that are not derived from fossil fuels – and paper, as Fedrigoni’s Chiara Medioli pointed out in Pulp 19, is a renewable resource. Despite its ubiquity and usefulness – not least in personal protective equipment (PPE) – plastic contributes to global warming in its manufacture, while plastic pollution wreaks severe environmental damage, as demonstrated in many documentaries and reports about the devastating effects of plastic waste on ocean life.

Breaking The Plastic Wave (a 2020 report from The Pew Charitable Trusts and Systemiq) finds that 21 per cent of plastics are economically recyclable, but only fifteen per cent are actually recycled. Meanwhile, an increasing amount of plastic
waste leaks into the sea each year. ‘If we continue with business as usual, there will
be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050,’ says Ellen MacArthur, celebrated sailor and founder of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, whose 2016 report Rethinking The Future of Plastics was highly influential.

Ambitious targets

European papermakers’ association Cepi recently announced 4Evergreen – an alliance of brands, board producers and carton converters to promote ‘fibre-based’ packaging to replace single-use plastic. This was a response both to increased consumer awareness, and the European Union’s Single Use Plastics Directive (2018), supported by a huge majority of MEPs. The Directive obliges EU member states to achieve a ban on items such as plastic cutlery, cups and plates by 2021 and a 90 per cent collection target for plastic bottles by 2029.

Long-term, strategic thinking is essential, but Kiko’s Mantilla prefers a more ‘hands-on’ approach. ‘There are issues that can be addressed in the short term by replacing some plastics with paper,’ he says. ‘Always ask your suppliers for certifications on how easy the materials (foils, lamination, UV coatings, pigments, polymers, etc.) are to recycle or dispose of.’

Another route to reducing waste is through innovation in materials. Last year drinks company Diageo announced the creation of a plastic free, paper-based recyclable bottle. And we have seen the old-school plastic cup largely replaced by fibre-based paper cups in time for the EU Directive. But such products are not without their problems when it comes to the ‘whole life’ impact of their materials, manufacture and transport. British designer Sophie Thomas sounds a note of caution: ‘Just because paper has a recovery waste stream available does not mean that the energy and resource used to make the product in the first place is less or equal.’

While plastic and other materials derived from fossils have a limited future, paper comes from renewable raw materials. Sectors such as magazine publishing have moved their packaging from polywrap to paper in recent years. Major food companies are increasingly keen to replace plastic-based packaging with paper-based alternatives where possible. And companies that have steered production towards more sustainable methods tend to be rewarded with increased investment.

At a recent online forum with Fedrigoni, Bain’s Bernardi made a strong case for setting ambitious targets. Emission reduction is highly complex, he said, and moving from fossil-based materials to renewable ones, – which includes replacing plastic with paper – is only one element in any company’s move towards a more circular economy.

Such issues are no longer of peripheral concern to big business. As the dire social and economic effects of the climate emergency become ever more clear, companies are being pushed by legislation, pulled by consumer demand and steered by stern targets for reduced emissions, waste and a lower carbon footprint. It’s rare to find a company report that doesn’t mention the circular economy.

As Ellen MacArthur said, launching Breaking The Plastic Wave: ‘We need to circulate everything we produce, be that plastic or a biological component which replaces it. […] This is the vision that over 450 organisations, including the biggest companies in the world, have signed up to.’ Achieving a circular economy requires both long-term thinking, and immediate action. And as Juan Mantilla says, it’s also a matter of design, craft and execution.

There is an urgent need to replace plastic with materials not derived from fossil fuels – and paper is a renewable resource.