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There are three excellent reasons plastics will hold its own, opines reporter Clare Goldsberry, though she admits there’s one battlefront that may not be worth the fight.

Clare Goldsberry

December 27, 2017

5 Min Read
Will plastics cede to paper in the sustainable packaging market?

Plastic might just have to cry “Uncle” and cede to paper when it comes to the sustainable packaging market. Now, before all you plastics people get your hackles up, there are several reasons I say this.

1. First, let’s look at the properties of plastic that make it so desirable. Plastic is strong, lightweight and durable. Plastic as a replacement for metals such as aluminum, steel, cast iron and other ferrous metals has been a big hit.


Because there are many types of plastics available today that can equal metals in their strength, especially when you add things like carbon and glass fibers. While there have been plastic replacements for metal products and components since the early decades of the 1900s, there are many more products and components waiting in the wings to be converted to plastics, not only because of their strength, but because of plastics’ light weight.

2. Which brings me to the second reason plastics has achieved such popularity in durable goods. Weight has become a big deal over the past couple of decades. Not only the weight of vehicles by manufacturers seeking to reduce fuel usage to comply with CAFÉ standards, but the weight of all types of durable goods that must be shipped globally by ocean freighters, trains and especially trucks, to decrease the cost of shipping these large, heavy items. Reduced weight equals reduced fuel to transport these goods, and that equals reduced cost by manufacturers.

3. Plastic’s durability is one of the reasons plastic is so popular in “durable” goods—those items meant to last three years or longer. That would include applications in industries such as automotive, appliance, consumer electronics, electrical, infrastructure such as oil, gas, water and sewer pipe, agriculture, lawn and garden, and building and construction. Plastic has proven its durability and for that reason has maintained its popularity in the durable good market. Ultimately, manufacturers shouldn’t be too worried about the “sustainability” in these long-term use products.

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Regardless of those properties for which plastic provided the solution to many problems that conventional materials could not solve such as weight and non-durability, “sustainability” crept into the plastics industry. Plastic actually is sustainable, particularly in its manufacturing processes, its light-weight benefits, and its strength and durability. Providing strength and durability means that the product or component does not have to be manufactured over and over as often. That saves on electricity and the many other processing necessities required to made products.

Plastic edged its way into the non-durable goods market and ultimately into the packaging market for many of the same reasons it became big in the durable goods market. Packaging was light-weight, compared to metal and glass, which reduced shipping costs; less energy intensive to manufacture than metal and glass, and much stronger than glass containers for which breakage losses were a problem.

However, sustainable packaging has become the big bug-a-boo for plastics, which are being attacked by advocacy groups made up of competitors that see plastic packaging as a product that is killing the planet.  These groups call the “sustainability” of plastics into question. To offset that many materials compounders and manufacturers are pulling out all the stops to force plastic—this strong, lightweight, durable material—to make plastic weak and non-durable so that it can be gotten rid of quickly and easily under any circumstance and in any environment.

While those in the plastic packaging industry segment continue to try to make plastic biodegradable, compostable, or just plain magically disappear quickly in the environment, not many advancements have been made in this regard. There are various additives that hasten the degradability of certain plastic materials, but nothing fast enough to satisfy the “Greens.” Composting plastics has pretty much been a bust as well. As I’ve said repeatedly in my various blogs on this topic, nothing will make this durable, chemically bonded material designed to be durable for decades suddenly have the capability to disappear overnight.

A recent Coherent Market Insights report, Global Green Packaging Market to Surpass US$238.27 Billion by 2025, noted that “On the basis of material, the paper and paperboard segment dominated the global green packaging market in 2016 and it expected to lead the market throughout the forecast period. This segment is gaining popularity due to the rising demand for eco-friendly and biodegradable packaging material since paper is 100% recyclable, compostable, and biodegradable.”

The report also found that on the “basis of process type, recycled content packaging is projected to have a significant share in the green packaging market. This segment has gained popularity, owing to its benefits associated with reduced energy consumption and reduced carbon footprint.”

A question

My question remains, “Is using recycled content really a means to reducing the carbon foot print given all the activity and use of fossil fuels around collecting, driving the material to a recycling facility, sorting, cleaning through the use of chemicals and hot water to remove labels and post-consumer debris, baling, shipping to a reprocessor, then shipping the reprocessed paper, metal, and plastics to another manufacturer to be made into an end-use product really all that GREEN?”

The Coherent report noted that “Among the various end users, food and beverage led the market in2016 and is expected to maintain its lead throughout the forecast period. Rapid adoption of green packaging products among the manufacturers operating in the food and beverage industry is one of the key factors driving the growth of the green packaging market.”

A suggestion

Perhaps it would be best for the plastics industry to spend time and money on durable plastics for industrial, transportation, and other durable goods market segments, rather than on ways to make single-use plastic food and beverage containers disappear in the environment. Perhaps it would be better to cede this market to the paper/paperboard industry and put our efforts, time, energy and money into those areas for which plastic serves its best and highest use.

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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