Paper or plastic? Well, if it were that simple!

We can't do without plastic if we want our food to be well packaged. But in the future, paper as well as recycled and novel packaging materials will play a major role.

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Saturdays at the supermarket vegetable aisle: Damn it, left the reusable vegetable bags at home! And most of the tomatoes are packed in plastic. Why don’t manufacturers understand that we consumers prefer to reach for cardboard packaging?

They do. But often the choice between paper and plastic is not so simple. Because it's not just about the type and amount of packaging waste. It's also about the fact that food has a shorter shelf life when it's packaged in paper or cardboard. Vegetables become shriveled more easily because cardboard packaging doesn't hold moisture as well as plastic wrapping. Fruit gets bruised more quickly if it is transported with less protection. If fresh produce in paper spoils more quickly, there is less plastic but more food waste.

According to the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union, 55 percent of fruit was sold pre-packaged in supermarkets or weekly markets in 2019.

Germans throw throws away 17 kilos (37 pounds) of paper, cardboard and cartons per year 

According to the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union, 55 percent of fruit was sold pre-packaged in supermarkets or weekly markets in 2019. For vegetables, the figure was 67 percent.[1] This results in around 17 kilograms of packaging waste made of paper or cardboard per year and per German citizen.[2]  In a world with increasingly scarce resources and an increasingly waste-conscious society, it stands to reason that only packaging manufacturers who design plastic and paper packaging more sustainably will be able to survive in the future.

This includes, for example, producing paper and cardboard products of the highest possible quality. On the one hand, they must reuse a significant proportion of recycled fibers. On the other hand, they must be able to pass the consumer test in terms of appearance and functional properties.

Plastic packaging can be made lighter to save raw material. After all, many foods can be offered in flexible packaging instead of rigid packaging. And plastic packaging also becomes quite a bit more sustainable if it remains unmixed. This means they can easily be integrated into a circular economy and recycled into new plastic packaging, which can then be used again for the same foods.

New packaging materials come from industrial waste

Less raw material consumption also occurs when the proportion of recycled materials is steadily increased. One example of this is the industry initiative "New Plastics Economy Global Commitment," which works together with the United Nations Environment Programme. Retailers and packaging manufacturers who are members of this alliance have pledged to achieve a 25 percent recycling rate for plastic packaging by 2025 - a tenfold increase on today's rate.[3]

We believe the future will also be about developing new packaging materials, for example from waste products of industrial production processes. Paper manufacturers are currently researching ways of extracting the biopolymer lignin from black liquor - a byproduct of cellulose production. This universal plant-based material can be used, for example, to produce the flavoring vanillin, a UV-protective substance for sunscreen, or even new types of packaging.

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