Paper-Based Packaging Is All the Rage—but Is It Really the Most Sustainable Solution?

Experts say it's more complicated than simply choosing the right material

Pulpex Limited, Native, Seventh Generation and ThreeMain are some of the many brands looking to replace plastic in packaging, Photo Illustration: Trent Joaquin; Source: Johnnie Walker, ThreeMain, Zero Plastic, Native, Magnum

Paper-based packaging is having a moment.

As the consequences of the climate crisis become more top of mind for consumers, brands in different categories are looking for ways to reduce their ecological footprint by making adjustments to their packaging.

They’re taking one of two routes: creating reusable packaging that can be maintained by the same consumer or manufacturing single-use products with highly recyclable materials, like paper.

However, paper still comes from a limited natural resource—trees—and can require a fair amount of manufacturing to shape into a material that can contain things like soap, milk, deodorant or even whiskey. In order to make sure the paper package can last as long as it needs to, the material usually requires a barrier coating, which often introduces plastic to the mix anyway.

So is paper-based packaging really the best option, or is it simply the most fashionable one right now? Experts say the answer is complicated and requires a deep understanding of the journey a package takes from brand to consumer to end-life. Paper breaks down much more quickly than other materials and can be harvested in a sustainable manner. But it doesn’t work for everything.

“There is no silver bullet, and there is no perfect package,” said Bridget Croke of Closed Loop Partners, an investment firm that focuses on sustainability. “There are trade-offs to everything.” What’s more important, she added, is to consider what can and will be reused in our current system and then push for more and better solutions.

Why the push for paper?

In the past several months, many CPG brands—from small direct-to-consumer companies to international conglomerates—have been opting for paper instead of plastic, which pollutes the oceans and endangers wildlife, or glass, which can be impractical and requires more fuel to transport due to its weight.

Plastic, in particular, has fallen out of favor among an increasingly environmentally aware public. It takes forever to break down and requires petroleum to make, but it’s also very cheap, light, works well as a water barrier and can be highly recyclable.

“There might be some common conventional wisdom out there that plastics are bad, but you must look at options for your industry, your product and your operations,” said Vishal Agrawal, an associate professor at Georgetown University.

Then there’s the issue of recycling. In 2019, Harvard Business Review identified the “elusive green consumer”—those who may intend to recycle but don’t actually follow through. One survey found that while 65% of consumers want to support environmentally friendly brands, only about 26% have actually changed their habits.

The missed opportunity is most evident in the rates of plastic recycling (plastic can be highly recyclable if produced with that in mind). Of all the plastic waste Americans generated in 2017 (the most recent data available from the EPA) only 8% was recycled. Brands are either introducing the wrong plastic or consumers just aren’t taking it to the recycling bin.

Plastic-free alternatives

While some brands are simply changing the way they rely on plastic, others see an opportunity to reject it completely. DTC personal care brand Native unveiled a new plastic-free, paper-based deodorant applicator earlier this year and committed to plastic-free packages for all its products—which include soaps, body wash and toothpaste—by 2023.

For Native, sustainable packaging was something the brand’s consumers had been requesting for years. Founded in 2015 as a clean, cruelty-free alternative to mainstream personal care products, the number of fans asking about a plastic-free alternative for the deodorant applicators hit a tipping point in 2018.

Native’s new plastic-free deodorant applicators debuted this summer.

The new packages come with some drawbacks, but for Native’s consumer base, the trade-offs made sense and the product has been well received. The plastic-free, push-up-style tubes cost $1 more than traditional plastic applicators, and the product tends to leave a subtle oil stain on the cardboard. The brand looked into addressing the problem with resin or plastic-based coating but opted not to so the cardboard would retain its recyclable and compostable designation. Instead, it added a line on the package that explains to consumers that oil residue may form.

“Sustainability for Native is about progress, not perfection,” said Katie Weltz, Native’s head of sustainability. “We plan to continue to innovate and create a product that delivers on performance, customer experience and safety.”

Big brands invest in paper

While Native’s small-scale change indicates changing consumer tastes for a small category, there’s also evidence of movement among the big CPG players.

Alcohol conglomerate Diageo partnered with venture management firm Pilot Lite to launch Pulpex Limited in July with the aim of creating new paper-based packaging options for its products—starting with a paper-based Johnnie Walker bottle. Pulpex Limited also created a partner consortium with major players like PepsiCo and Unilever that also expect to launch their own branded paper bottles.

Diageo announced this summer that Johnnie Walker would be the first of its brands to be sold in a paper-based package created by Pulpex Limited.

“Paper-based packaging needs a protective layer on the inside as it’s highly porous and loses strength when it gets wet,” said a Unilever spokesperson. “Pulpex uses the same principle as making an egg box: paper fibres, mixed with water and other agents and pressed into a shape. However, this limits you to a pot or tub type of design.”

When weighing the effectiveness of packaging alternatives, PepsiCo considers carbon impact and the likelihood a material will in fact become part of the circular economy.

“Truly scaling a circular future for plastics and driving meaningful progress toward that end requires innovation and partnership at every stage of the value chain,” said Burgess Davis, vice president of global sustainable plastics at PepsiCo.

The issue of sustainable packaging is a complicated one, as brands must consider the full life cycle of a product that ensures innovation doesn’t introduce new environmental threats. While rejecting plastic may look good on paper, it may not be the most effective choice for every product or brand.

In 2017, Unilever introduced its “Less Plastic, Better Plastic, No Plastic” framework, which assists the company in its goal of avoiding “unintended consequences when introducing alternative materials.”

Refillable alternatives

This recycling gap has motivated smaller, eco-friendly startups to introduce reusable materials. ThreeMain, a household supplies company founded in 2017, is working to eradicate waste and plastic in the cleaning industry with its refillable aluminum bottles.

“Our bottles are intended to be [refilled and reused] over time, but in the event that someone discards it, it can be recycled just like an aluminum soda can,” said co-founder and head of product Lauren Simonelli. “Aluminum can be recycled over and over again, whereas plastic wears down.”

Ideally, Simonelli said, ThreeMain would rely on a fully “closed loop” system in which every package is reused or recycled and nothing is wasted. But that would require consumers to “step in and carry that burden,” giving up some of the convenience they’re used to.

For now, ThreeMain’s taking a more realistic approach. “Give consumers an alternative that’s an easy switch because it doesn’t require them to do anything different in terms of their consumption habits,” Simonelli said. Just swap out plastic for aluminum, and you’ve got a more recyclable product.

ThreeMain sells its products in aluminum, reusable containers to reduce single-use plastic.

But as with any packaging alternative, aluminum has its own drawbacks—mining it is a toxic and energy-consumptive process, said Cloke, and if we use more of the material we’ll need to mine more.

Ultimately, the CPG industry needs to think more holistically about the way its packaging is affecting the environment—and what the end-life of each of those packages looks like.

Cloke said she hopes to eventually see every piece of packaging enter the world with a clear understanding of how it will be reused, recycled or composted so nothing intentionally ends up in landfill.

But until then, cooperative efforts like Pulpex Limited and other noncompetitive initiatives to create innovative, sustainable solutions are leading the industry in the right direction.

“No company can solve this alone,” Cloke said. “They need to work across the industry.”

@klundster Kathryn Lundstrom is Adweek's breaking news reporter based in Austin.
Emmy is an Adweek contributor who is completing her journalism degree at The College of New Jersey with minors in Spanish and broadcast journalism.