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When is 'green' not really green? According to As You Sow, an environmental group that put the pressure on Mondelez International, headquartered in Deerfield, IL, green is the color of paper.

Clare Goldsberry

May 27, 2014

5 Min Read
More investors bow to pressure from “green” group to drop plastic packaging

When is 'green' not really green? According to As You Sow, an environmental group that put the pressure on Mondelez International, headquartered in Deerfield, IL, green is the color of paper. The group asserts that unrecyclable packaging wastes resources and contributes to the "growing pollution of world oceans." Recently Mondelez, the "world's largest" snack food company and producer of brands such as Oreo, Chips Ahoy, Trident gum and Philadelphia cream cheese, received 28.4% shareholder support representing $11.9 billion worth of shares to change its food packaging from "unrecyclable" plastic film to cardboard packaging, at the food company's annual meeting.

MondelezPic_460.jpg"Shareholders should be concerned that the company is selling packaging that is designed to be dumped in a landfill," said Conrad MacKarron, senior vice president of As You Sow. "Using unrecyclable packaging when alternatives are available leads to increased use of virgin materials and wastes enormous amounts of valuable resources that could be reused many times over."

Once again we see the narrow-minded viewpoint of the "greens" that continue to tout alternative packaging such as cardboard as "greener" than unrecyclable plastic. The major reason being cited is that this "unrecyclable" plastic ends up in the oceans. And once again, I'll repeat my mantra: Plastics in the oceans or along roadsides is a people problem, not a plastics problem! Otherwise we wouldn't be seeing glass bottles, paper and paperboard trash strewn about along beaches and roadsides.

Why doesn't Mr. MacKerron encourage Mondelez to package its cookies and other snacks in recyclable plastic packaging?  I can guess. It's most likely because Mr. MacKerron is against plastic, but not because he's such a huge fan of recycling. There are plenty of recyclable plastic alternatives that are much "greener" to produce than paperboard. However, getting people to recycle recyclable packaging of any type - paper, cardboard or plastic - is the bigger problem!

People will recycle if it's convenient such as curbside pickup or local recycling bins that are easy to access. As well as if they are educated about the tremendous need for recycled plastics by major manufacturers that use recycled materials in products such as carpeting, decking and fencing, and other building and construction products and much more.

Plastic packaging studies 

In January, an extensive study was released that sought to answer the question, "if plastic packaging were replaced with alternative types of packaging, how would energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions be affected?" Commissioned by the American Chemistry Council (ACC) and the Canadian Plastics Industry Association (CPIA), Franklin Associates, a division of ERG, conducted this study of plastic packaging substitution for predominant packaging resins.

The study noted that packaging use account for over a third of sales and captive use of thermoplastic resins. The packaging categories analyzed in the study are estimated to capture 95-99% of plastic use in North American packaging. Relative to other packaging materials such as steel, aluminum, glass, paper, etc., plastic-based packaging is 39-100% of total North American market demand for packaging categories analyzed in this study. The categories were in order from highest to lowest percent share of the total weight of current plastic packaging:

  • Other rigid packaging (including the subcategories non-bulk rigid packaging, etc.)

  • Other flexible packaging (converted flexible packaging, etc.)

  • Beverage packaging

  • Carrier bags

  • Shrink and stretch film

  • Caps and closures

The study was based on a similar study done in 1990 for the Society of the Plastics Industry, and is also patterned after a 2010 study on plastics and alternatives commissioned by PlasticsEurope. Plastics examined for this recent study were the same as the European study: predominant packaging resins including low- and high-density polyethylene (LDPE/HDPE), polypropylene (PP), polyvinylchloride (PVC), polystyrene, expanded polystyrene (EPS) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET).

Without going into all the details contained in this extensive (152 pages) study, I'll just give you the summary: first, for the six packaging categories analyzed - caps and closures, beverage containers, stretch and shrink film, carrier bags, other rigid packaging, and other flexible packaging - 14.4 million metric tonnes of plastic packaging were used in the U.S. in 2010. If other types of packaging were used to substitute U.S. plastic packaging, 64 million metric tonnes of packaging would be required.

Secondly, the substitute packaging would require 80% more cumulative energy demand and result in 130% more global warming potential (GWP) impacts, expressed as CO2 equivalents, compared to the equivalent plastic packaging.

Canadian figures were equally as dramatic with plastic packaging use at approximately 1.6 million metric tonnes, and to provide the same amount of packaging with alternative or substitute materials, more than 7.1 million metric tonnes would be required. Energy requirements for the substitute packaging would be twice as high as for the equivalent plastic packaging, and GWP impacts for the substitute packaging would be more than double the impacts for the plastic packaging replaced.

So, let's face the cold (or warm - however you see it) hard facts, Mr. MacKerron: it takes far less energy and far fewer resources to produce plastics packaging than it does paper or paperboard. If you've never been to a manufacturing facility that makes paper you really need to take tour (these plants are located on rivers for a reason). And if you've never been to a plant that manufactures plastic packaging, I can get you into one for an eye-opening plant tour any time you're ready to be educated. Facts are important in this debate!

And remember, just because something - whether it's paper of plastic - is recyclable doesn't mean that it will be recycled! As I said earlier in this piece - lack of recycling is a people problem NOT a plastics problem!

In the meantime, I'd recommend that your organization, as well as the management and shareholders of Mondelez International, check out this study: https://www.plastics.americanchemistry.com/Education-Resources/Publications/Impact-of-Plastics-Packaging.pdf.       

About the Author(s)

Clare Goldsberry

Until she retired in September 2021, Clare Goldsberry reported on the plastics industry for more than 30 years. In addition to the 10,000+ articles she has written, by her own estimation, she is the author of several books, including The Business of Injection Molding: How to succeed as a custom molder and Purchasing Injection Molds: A buyers guide. Goldsberry is a member of the Plastics Pioneers Association. She reflected on her long career in "Time to Say Good-Bye."

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