We hear the phrase “plastic-free world” more and more. Yes, plastics do not belong in nature but there are some inherent benefits to plastic that we cannot ignore. Plastic is needed for packaging, consumer goods, medicine, and so much more. So instead of a plastic-free world, what we need is a plastic waste-free world, and that begins with eliminating unnecessary plastic use. The result is the shift towards plastic alternatives.
Many organizations have adopted fiber-based packaging as an alternative to plastic to help them achieve their Sustainability goals. Fiber-based packaging has a considerably lower carbon footprint than plastic because it does not rely on fossil fuel-derived products. The waste generated in the manufacturing of virgin paper and cardboard (such as wood shavings and black liquor) can be reused to supply thermal energy. This, in turn, can satisfy the energy demands of the papermaking plant. While fiber-based packaging is typically meant for single-use like plastic, it has fewer end-of-life impacts on the environment. Much of their carbon dioxide output is biogenic, so it is a matter of simply releasing the carbon previously sequestered in the raw material.
However, fiber-based materials can also lead to eutrophication, excessive water consumption, land-use, and deforestation. Millions of trees are cut down globally to supply packaging materials, including fiber-based packaging, and forests are undergoing severe degradation.
Recent studies by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization show that the rate of net forest loss from 2010 to 2020 was 4.7 million hectares per year vs. 7.8 million hectares per year from 1990 to 2000. Forests are essential life support systems for people, plants and animals. They capture carbon dioxide emissions and support biodiversity necessary to maintain healthy ecosystems. They are also crucial in maintaining a habitat boundary between humans and animals. By degrading these boundaries, humans are more vulnerable to cross-species disease transmission like COVID-19, which likely originated in pangolins or bats and was passed on to humans.
Many other industries might have a greater impact on global deforestation, such as palm oil, sugar cane and unsustainable agriculture. It is valid to point out that solving the plastic waste crisis by switching to fiber-based materials is too reductive a solution on its own. Chopping down the Amazon rainforest to help you pack a sandwich for lunch simply isn’t helping the planet or its inhabitants.
That said, some companies are tackling these issues in a completely new way. They manufacture a material out of mycelium mushrooms with properties equivalent to polystyrene. The feedstock is highly renewable, can reuse agricultural waste and is not as resource-intensive as traditional fiber-based product manufacturing. The products are designed to be single-use and completely compostable. This process has great potential to help companies offset their emissions and substantially reduce their carbon footprint.
The need of the hour is informed decision-making based on quantitative, fact-based data. Companies need to work with experts to implement life cycle thinking and circularity into their packaging strategies and achieve sustainable success.
A comprehensive Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) database provides the data organizations need to accurately capture and understand the environmental impact of their packaging solutions from a beginning to end. Sphera’s Packaging Calculator is an LCA tool that allows users to understand and compare the impacts of different packaging options. By providing the data and removing the complexity, users can ask the “what if” questions for their packaging. By doing so, they can discover innovative ways to push Sustainability forward in packaging.
Life Cycle Assessment is also a tool that works together with the principles of a circular economy. That’s why Sphera has developed a material circularity toolkit that can be incorporated into assessments and provide the insights companies really need to integrate circular economy principles into their businesses.
As we can see, the demand for a plastic waste-free world and innovative packaging solutions is on the rise. Fortunately, there are already insights, data and tools in place to help companies stay ahead of the curve.