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.

@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.