Composite packaging comes at the expense of recycling

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Advertising claims for ‘ecological’ paper-based composite packaging are greenwashing

Experts are advocating packaging made of mono-materials – such as recycling-friendly plastic

When measures regarding packaging waste and increased sustainability in the packaging sector are discussed, criticism is aimed unfairly at plastic packaging. Studies on the subject have made this clear time and time again. Nevertheless, the ongoing criticism of plastic packaging has now led to quite a few companies replacing pure plastic packaging with packaging that contains paper. This is apparently intended to make the packaging ‘greener’. As a result, composite packaging made of paper and plastic is increasingly replacing pure plastic packaging in shops. However, this is creating an increasing problem when it comes to recycling the packaging, as the German Central Agency Packaging Register (ZSVR) is now warning. This is because such fibre-based packaging with a plastic content can only be partially recycled at best.

According to experts, the current trend to replace pure plastic packaging with packaging made of a material mix of paper and plastic is being fuelled by the fact that the corresponding products are being advertised with the claim ‘less plastic’. In this way, the sustainability-oriented consumer is being led to believe that he or she is buying particularly eco-friendly goods. But this is a fallacy, as a study for the German Association for Plastics Packaging and Films carried out by the packaging market research institute Gesellschaft für Verpackungsmarktforschung (GVM), shows. The study confirms once again that paper-based composites tend to be detrimental to the circular economy. This means that praising composite packaging as being particularly environmentally friendly is now suspected of being a form of greenwashing.

Paper-based composites mean more waste and less efficient recycling

For one thing, paper-based composites cause more packaging waste, as the GVM study shows. To package the same amount of product, the study found that paper-based composites require on average 40 per cent more material than pure plastic packaging. The authors of the study predict that this means paper-based composites will generate a total of 25,000 tonnes more waste by 2025. At the same time, however, the amount of non-recyclable packaging is expected to fall by 19,000 tonnes because of the substitution of plastic packaging by paper-based composites.

The GVM study also finds fault with the fact that paper-based composites create problems when it comes to recycling. According to the study, only the fibre content of composite packaging is recyclable. This is usually over 70 per cent. GVM says that the only option for the remaining plastic coating is energy recovery. It also points out that the recycling of the fibre content currently falls considerably short of the level that is theoretically recyclable, while the growing proportion of composites is increasingly causing problems for the recycling of waste paper. The authors of the study therefore consider it to be particularly regrettable if plastic packaging that is readily recyclable is replaced by composites.

But that is exactly what is already happening and is expected to increase further in the future: according to the study, it is forecast that around 60,900 tonnes of plastic packaging will be substituted by 85,500 tonnes of paper composites between 2020 and 2025. GVM is assuming that the investments currently being made in the circular economy will continue to improve recyclability in the plastic packaging market significantly by 2025. The GVM scientists conclude that substitution by paper-based composites will thus be taking place contrary to this optimisation process.

Paper-based composites are not an alternative to plastic packaging

All in all, they therefore conclude that substituting plastic packaging with paper-based composites does not represent progress. They say there is much to suggest that replacing plastic packaging with paper-based composites in those cases where it is almost completely recyclable does not make ecological sense at this point in time. This means the apparent ecological superiority of paper-based composites that the advertising departments of some product manufacturers would have consumers believe is proving to be pure greenwashing.

In the opinion of the ZSVR, the current debate on plastics is also creating new challenges because the volume of poorly recyclable composite packaging made of paper and plastic is increasing disproportionately. The Osnabrück-based foundation talks here about a trend towards packaging that can at best only be partially recycled. In this regard, it points out that due to criticism of plastic packaging, various companies are switching to paper-based packaging, using plastic-coated composites. ZSVR chair Gunda Rachut criticises this trend towards composite packaging, however, saying it is clearly at the expense of recycling. From an ecological point of view, she therefore strongly recommends that recyclable packaging alternatives made of mono-materials are clearly preferable to composite packaging.

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