Eliminate plastic items
More recyclable formats
Packaging made of paper or other fiber-based materials can take many forms, including paper bags, paperboard, corrugated board, molded fiber, canisters, cartons, and paper cushion (4, 15). Gable-top and aseptic cartons have particularly common usage for liquid products such as juice, milk, and soup. The suitability of switching from plastic to paper or cardboard needs to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Brands and packagers should understand a number of key factors in their decision-making process.
Technical and practical recyclability: Generally, paper is a highly recyclable material, which can be repulped and reused seven times before the fibers become too short and weak (19). Some paper-based packaging combines paper with other materials or coatings that are necessary to improve functionality and barrier properties but that can impact the recyclability of the packaging (7, 13). Additives designed to improve the wet-strength of paper packaging also may have implications for recyclability in repulping operations (13). Companies are encouraged to consult with their suppliers or organizations such as the American Forest & Paper Association to better understand technical recyclability performance for specific applications.
Recycling system status: Corrugated cardboard and many other types of uncoated paper packaging are almost universally collected in residential recycling programs in the U.S. Cartons and some other forms of coated paper packaging are less accepted (9). As a broad category of materials, the recovery rate for paper and cardboard is higher than any other basic material and has been recovered at more than 65% for nearly 10 years (12). However, some categories such as cardboard are recycled at higher levels than others. The recycling rate for paper packaging excluding corrugated cardboard is estimated at 20.8% per EPA figures (12). Overall, more than 20 million tons of paper are either landfilled or incinerated each year (12).
Recycled content, circularity, and responsibly sourced fiber: Many paper products are capable of having high levels of recycled content and circularity, especially corrugated cardboard and uncoated paperboard (20). Polycoated cartons have lower capability of using recycled content and lower circularity back to packaging. Because of fiber loss through the recycling process, virgin fiber will be consistently needed in many applications. Sourcing sustainably produced fiber and making use of forestry certification systems is critical to avoid unintended environmental impacts (4).
Increased recyclability: In many cases, replacing plastic films with paper-based solutions will lead to higher levels of recycling simply because the recycling infrastructure for collecting films is limited in the U.S. Transparent paper that is more compatible with the recycling process can be a substitute for plastic windows in packaging or, alternatively, printing techniques can be deployed on paper to illustrate product contents. Similarly, paper packaging can present a viable solution for plastic films such as wraps and bags or for protective packaging where molded fiber may substitute for expanded plastic foam. Cardboard packaging solutions that are more readily recyclable in the current U.S. system can substitute for less recyclable shrink film and plastic rings used for multi-pack beverages (1). Innovations in paper coating, especially in food applications, are increasing (2).
Increased recycled content: Heavier paper and cardboard used in rigid non-food packaging can be made with high levels of recycled content. The EPA’s “Comprehensive Procurement Guidelines for Paper and Paper Products” provides guidance on recycled content for various applications (22). One of the primary markets for 100% recycled cardboard is residential mixed paper.
Reduced need for refrigeration: Some carton formats can prevent food spoilage while reducing the need for refrigeration, which in turn could be associated with reductions in life-cycle emissions in some cases and applications.
Consumer preference: Consumers may appreciate paper and cardboard packaging for reasons of recyclability and practicability, as a study in the UK found (5).
As mentioned above, a switch to paper-based packaging needs to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis taking into account these factors. A switch to paper should consider GHGs, refrigeration needs, sourcing of the fiber, packaging weight, costs, recyclability of the application, and overall recycling rates.
Ensuring compatibility with the recovery system: Ensure that paper recycling infrastructure is in place and at scale and that your future packaging design is compatible with the recycling processes. Consider the availability of collection and sorting schemes as well as the probable fate of the packaging (1, 4). Compatibility with recycling processing can, for instance, be confirmed by Western Michigan University testing (15).
Design paper packaging for recyclability: There are many choices that can affect the recyclability of paper. Generally speaking, water-soluble inks, dyes, adhesives, and coatings cause few problems. The use of certain materials such as wet-strength resins and non-paper materials (e.g., plastic windows or foils) can also be problematic (13).
Invest in innovation: Innovation in new materials, packaging designs, and barrier coatings/alternatives for plastic linings are rapidly evolving and will likely improve the outcomes of paper packaging in the future. However, coatings and fillers should be compatible with the expected end of life of the product (e.g. compostable or recyclable) and need to be applied and proven at scale (2).
Clear identification as paper: Ensure that any potential packaging alternative to plastic is either completely made from paper or that the plastic or other non-fiber parts are clearly labeled and distinguishable to support appropriate disposal/recycling. Recycling should be the preferred option, but there may be cases (e.g., with food contact) in which composting of some kinds of paper packaging is a viable and/or a preferred solution.
Support direct investments in recycling: Direct investments in recycling have the potential to accelerate the expansion of paper, cardboard, and carton collection and recycling; increase recycled content in paper; and reduce contamination (2). For example, the percentage of the U.S. population with recycling programs available for cartons is in the 20-60% range, which underperforms certain common plastic alternatives such as PET bottles. Continuing to increase this share is a critical enabler for justifying a shift to beverage cartons, for example (9).
Paper recycling infrastructure and sourcing standards: Demand for recycled content helps incentivize and justify investments in paper recycling infrastructure. At the same time, broader commitment to the use of sustainability standards for virgin fiber and to the use of paper recycling design guides helps ensure sustainable fiber sourcing and the use of paper packaging that is most compatible with the recycling system (1, 4, 2).
Innovation of paper packaging: Participation in research and development and adoption of viable innovations to ensure coatings and barriers are recyclable is critical to long-term success (2).
(1) EMF (2020). Upstream Innovation. (Link)
(2) SYSTEMIQ Ltd (2020). Breaking the Plastic Wave: A Comprehensive Assessment of Pathways Towards Stopping Ocean Plastic Pollution. (Link)
(3) Sustainable Packaging Coalition Centralized Availability of Recycling Study, 2016. (Link)
(4) Green Blue (2011). Closing the Loop: Design for Recovery Guidelines for Paper Packaging. (Link)
(5) Two Sides Team (2019). Paper & paperboard packaging comes out on top in new consumer survey. (Link)
(6) Material Economics (2019) Sustainable Packaging: the role of materials substitution. (Link)
(7) DS Smith (n.d.). Transforming the supermarket aisle. (Link)
(8) Beverage Carton EU (2021). Supporting evidence. (Link)
(9) Sustainable Packaging Coalition Centralized Availability of Recycling Study, 2016. (Link)
(10) Waste Advantage (2019). Carton Council: Breaking through misconceptions. (Link)
(11) EPA. Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: Facts and Figures Report. (Link)
(12) AF&PA Design guides. (Link)
(13) Sustainable Packaging Coalition (2021). Guide to verifying responsible sourcing of fiber. (Link)
(14) Walmart Inc. (2019). The Recycling Playbook. (Link)
(15) Zero Waste Europe (2020). How to avoid chemicals in your food packaging. (Link)
(16) Toxic-free future and safer chemicals, health families (2018). Take out toxics. PFAS chemicals in food packaging. (Link)
(17) CEPI (2019) Paper-Based Packaging Recyclability Guidelines. (Link)
(18) American Forest & Paper Association. (Link)
(19) Recycled Paperboard Alliance. (Link)
(20) Environmental Paper Assessment Tool. (Link)
(21) EPA. Comprehensive Procurement Guideline (CPG) Program. (Link)