Carton vs Plastic packaging: Who wins the debate?

At Flexoplast we’re are always happy to see brand owners embrace their sustainable responsibilities through better packaging. However with sustainable packaging receiving more attention we’ve also seen more confusion: all too often we see brand owners that feel like they have to switch away from plastic packaging to alternative solutions like carton ‘because it’s more sustainable’. And not only will this switch cost them millions….In many cases Packaging Sustainability is far less cut-and-dry as people think. Few sustainability comparisons truly look at the lifetime value of a piece of packaging, which should also take into account the factors pictured below: 

 

 

 

As you can see, a study by the independent PTIS (Packaging Technology & Integrated Solutions) illustrates that a ‘flexible pouch’ (plastic stand-up pouch) is much more efficient in many aspects. So if it’s not CO2 or water consumption that makes plastics seem ‘unsustainable’, then what is?  

 

Behavior and perception  

Plastics were designed to be a very lightweight and efficient form of material, and it was built to last. The upsides to this are numerous: plastics keep tons of products safe (food and beverage packaging, consumer products, electronics, etc.) under difficult circumstances and for long periods. The downside to this is human behavior: when people carelessly throw away their product packaging these same upsides turn sour. Because the same upsides that make plastic so good at their role also guarantee it’ll stay with us for a long time. This also makes plastic pollution more easy to spot: consumers don’t get to see the electric bills of a carton factory, which are multitudes higher for the same output when compared to plastic producers.  

 

They do see the end product, which is exactly the point where plastics still have the most room for improvement. Luckily, this improvement is happening year by year. Both in the front-end, where companies like ourselves are constantly improving our plastic to be more recyclable, and actually re-using recycled plastic to permanently ‘close the loop’. But improvement is also happening at the end of the line, as illustrated in the ‘Marine Litter Solutions’ executive summary of June 2020: 

 

This image perfectly illustrates the massive continued growth in members, countries and projects that are actively reducing Ocean Litter all over the world. As these kinds of groups continue to grow, and consumers are better educated and motivated to recycle their plastic (f.e. through turn in programs and fully recyclable packaging), plastic will continue to reduce their last true sustainable downside.  

 

And as this trend continues to improve plastics will only pull away further in the sustainability rankings: considering it’s already the most efficient during the majority of its lifespan. A calculation made during a NHL Stenden’s thesis perfectly illustrates this lifetime CO2 output per packaging type/ unit. This also shows how Plastic’s CO2 output has such a large proportion of ‘publicly aware’ output, which has partly lead to Plastic’s negative sentiment. 

 
  

Packaging 

CO2 lifetime output 

Plastic 

0,89 KG 

Glass 

0,92 KG 

Carton

0,964 KG 

Cans 

1,351 KG  

*Direct CO2 emissions: all product-related greenhouse gasses that are created internally within the own company. 
 
*Indirect CO2 emissions: all product-related greenhouse gasses that are created externally, but that are required to produce the product. For example production energy and raw materials. 
 

 

Lightweight production 

As mentioned above greenhouse gas is a very important but often forgotten dimension of sustainable packaging. Plastic packaging is very efficient to produce, which in turn reduces the lifetime carbon footprint of a piece of packaging. Compared to all of its peers plastic is the most efficient to produce, as calculated by the American Chemistry Council: 

  

The reasons behind this efficiency are many: 

  • because of Plastic’s incredibly flexibility it boasts the highest packaging per product rate (in other words; how much air and thus unnecessary space are you packing?), 
  • Due to its light weight but high strength and durability, plastic is by far the easiest and most efficient to transport. Both during the different stages of production, and once it’s wrapped around a product and headed towards the consumers. 
  • Plastics also help prevent food waste because of the ease with which plastic packaging can add barriers and be frozen. As food waste is another gigantic co2 waste in of itself this is a very significant factor in the total packaging sustainability! 

 

In summary to illustrate the arguments, we created an infographic:

 

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