Podcast: Plastic vs Paper

Is the push towards paper packaging really better for the environment? 

In this in-depth video podcast MorsaPack’s Managing Director, Robert McEwan, looks at the relative benefits, pitfalls and perceptions of both plastic and paper. He explores how they’re each viewed by consumers, and what plastic can learn from paper. He also considers their functionality in a variety of usages, and what factors influence businesses weighing up which packaging material works best for their products.

Alternatively, read a full transcript of this discussion below:

Katie Upton (Interviewer): So, Robert you’ve worked in the packaging industry for 20+ years now, you must have seen a lot of change, one of those I’m going to guess around the move from paper to plastics and then plastics back to paper.

Robert McEwan: Yeah, it’s very interesting isn’t it?  When I started work paper was frowned upon really as far as packaging is concerned because of the cost of the trees.  I think one of the things that paper has done really well is how they’ve adapted to recycling facilities to make sure that paper is more recyclable and the technology behind making sure that the paper performance is better.  But yeah, there was a big move from using paper to plastics and now we’re seeing a big move back.

Katie Upton: So, where plastics are seen as being bad in a way, is that something you would agree with, is paper the solution?

Robert McEwan: It’s a very big question and covers a whole range of packaging items.  So, if you just take for example pallet wrapping, we’re seeing now paper products coming out that’s designed for wrapping of pallets.  I always look at packaging…first of all look at the recyclability of the product that you’ve got and how we can use recycled content in that packaging, but then you need to look at the performance of the packaging itself.  So, if we’re looking at pallet wrapping for example, the whole point of pallet wrapping is to hold the product on the pallet, so you’ve got to look at how you do that best, first of all from a safety point of view, and then secondly from an environmental point of view.  What we’ve seen is we’ve seen paper alternatives coming out that either don’t hold the product as securely as plastics are concerned, or if they do you need vastly more weight of packaging to do it.  So, if we were wrapping a pallet with plastics we would expect that you would be using anywhere between 100g and 200g of film and perhaps a bit more depending on the weight of the pallet, where you could be putting 700g, 800g of paper product on it.  Well to me that’s counterintuitive. 

My philosophy as far as packaging is concerned is first of all find the best way to do it from a medium to achieve the results that you want your packaging to do; secondly look at the environmental aspects of that product; and then it’s down to the commercials or the cost that is involved in achieving that.

Katie Upton: So is the push to paper packaging really better for the environment?

Robert McEwan: It’s a very, very big question.  We need to take into consideration the recyclability of product and the resources that is required to manufacture the product in the first place.  I was told that to manufacture one A4 sheet of paper took 10 litres of water.  The resources that is needed from a CO2 point of view and other resources are very, very high in paper.  But then if you need to use a kilo of plastics and 200g of paper would do the same job, you can get a balance as to the way it works.  I’m also told that plastics can be recycled as many times as you want, where paper starts losing its quality after seven or eight times of being recycled.

So, there’s always a balance, there has to be a balance in relation to what we feel is better for the environment.  There’s a scientist who has written a book called The Plastic Paradox which gives all that information and it’s really important to understand the real science behind the push for change within the packaging industry.  You see situations where people have used plastic products and they’ve now started to say they are using the paper alternatives as it’s better for the environment, but then finding that there’s an aluminium liner or a plastic liner to the paper that means that that product is no longer recyclable. 

So, whilst it is a huge subject the way I look at it is the importance is to understand the full story as to first of all which is the best medium for packaging the product, you wouldn’t want to put soup in a paper box would you?  So, which is the best medium for the product, what gives the best results to achieve what the aims of the packaging is and then the environmental aspect and the environmental impact of what that product is.

Katie Upton: Is that to do with the impact that packaging can have on other parts of the process around logistics and transport?

Robert McEwan: Yes, there will be an element of that.  If you’re bringing a product that comes from China for example it has a different environmental impact doesn’t it than a product that is manufactured here in the UK, just from a transport and logistics point of view.  You’d also get situations where you’d have a small item that you are selling that in the past may have gone into a plastic mailing bag but now goes into a cardboard box.  The plastic mailing bag may weigh 20g and a cardboard box may weigh 50g or 60g.  Well, if you multiply that out by every box that you send out your packaging waste element is very much higher. 

I went to an exhibition in London, and they had a big advert to say that they were not allowing plastic bottles for water, and they changed to an aluminium can.  It puzzles me situations like that, because a plastic bottle is infinitely recyclable, we have a product, polyester strapping is made from polyester bottles, plastic bottles.  So, you’ve got a product that is infinitely recyclable in a plastic bottle, it weighs very little, over the last years they’ve taken more and more plastic out of it so now it weighs very little, there’s not a lot of packaging weight in there.  It does the job, holds the water in where it needs to hold it and is very cost-effective, it’s a cost-effective packaging medium.  Now what we’re seeing is we’re seeing that those bottles themselves are having more and more recycled material in them.  They were advertising that they’d moved to an aluminium can for all their water bottles which is heavier, it takes more resource, more energy to create, yes, it’s recyclable but it’s all on the background of a push because of littering really, because what you see is you see bottles on the ground.  Now you pull up on the side of a motorway junction and you look out at the side, and you see bottles and you see cans and you see paper; you see the whole range of products.  Plastic bottles getting into waterways and into lakes and everything else that has been highlighted by the media, it isn’t just plastics, it’s everything isn’t it?  It’s the waste management issue of every product.

Katie Upton: It also feeds into the idea that the plastics aren’t the problem, people are, because the plastic doesn’t put itself there.

Robert McEwan: Yes.  Correct.  Now if we just look at where I was when I started work and paper was seen as a bad medium for packaging because it was using up trees and resources, what paper have done very successfully in my opinion is they’ve changed the perception and they’ve actually done something about how waste is managed.  So, you’ve got a situation where now if you have a box and you put it into the tip or into your waste it gets properly managed through the system so that as much as possible is recycled and reused.  It doesn’t get rid of the fact that people still throw McDonald’s bags made of paper, they still throw it on the floor, and there’s that side of the issue.  But what paper have done, I think have done very successfully, is change the perception and the reality of how paper is handled through the process and what plastics need to do is exactly the same thing.  They need to change the whole recycling ability.  If you as a person that has a house has got some plastics, they need to get rid of that it’s easy to recycle.

Katie Upton: And that you know that they’ll be recycled.

Robert McEwan: Yes.  I had about five or six rolls of pallet wrap, part of my job, in the back of my car, I put it down the side of my house because I wanted to do something, put some things in the car, and the rolls got wet so we couldn’t use them anymore because all the cores crushed.  So, I took them down to our local waste recycling plant and just said to them ‘These are rolls of film, where do I put it?’  ‘Oh, landfill.’  Well it’s plastic, it’s rolls of plastic and they were decent sized rolls, I said…they said ‘No, no, it goes into landfill’ and there was no facility to be able to recycle that.

Katie Upton: As well as looking at the recyclability of a product do you also look at the environmental impact of how it’s been produced?

Robert McEwan: Yeah.  It’s the whole life cycle isn’t it that is important.  I’ll give you a small example.  When the push for 30% recycled material in plastics came out technology was way behind where it needed to be as far as producing, especially performance products with that level of recyclability or recycled content in it.  What most companies were coming up with was a product that couldn’t stretch as much, so a product with recycled content would stretch 150% as an example, so 1m of film would become 2.5m of film and you would need say a 23 µm film to do the same performance of a 17 µm of 100% virgin material.  100% virgin material at 17 µm you could stretch up to 300%, so 1m becomes 4m.  But then you’ve done two things: you’ve lost stretchability because instead of stretching it 3m from 1m to 4m you are now only stretching it 1.5m, from 1m to 2.5m.  but at the same time, you are going from a 17 µm to a 23 µm and these are materials that have got 30% recycled content in them.  So, what you are actually doing, it’s changed as time has gone on but at that time you were actually using the same amount of virgin material, then on top of it you were using up 30% recycled content.

Katie Upton: So, there was actually no gain?

Robert McEwan: So, there was absolutely no gain whatsoever at that time.  Now things have changed, as technology has improved things have changed that we’re now seeing bigger stretch ratios coming out.  But it all relies on a continuous supply of quality materials, because if you are running at high performance levels and high speeds or high tolerances or low tolerances it’s absolutely critical that you’ve got that consistent supply of raw material to be able to produce a product that can do it.  I went and got my breakfast this morning and I ordered a bottle of Tropicana orange juice and Tropicana orange juice used to be in a very clear bottle and now it comes in a very slightly grey bottle and the thickness of the bottle has actually increased because they are using more recycled material in it.

Katie Upton: So, they are using more plastic?

Robert McEwan: So, they are using more plastic but then what’s the alternative?  The alternative…you can’t put it in a paper bag, can you?  You could put it into a glass bottle but then look at the environmental impacts of glass as a material, you’re going to go probably two or three times the packaging weight to go from plastics to glass.

Katie Upton: And presumably that requires a lot more energy to produce?

Robert McEwan: Absolutely.

Katie Upton: So, is the push around what looks good to consumers and end users rather than what’s actually best for the environment?

Robert McEwan: There’s an element of it, I’m not saying that that’s the case in all situations, there’s an element of it.  Definitely there’s instances where paper is a better solution than plastics.  I think my message is that it’s not just a natural replace your plastics with paper, it’s understand the science and the studies that have gone on so that you make the decision that is right for the environment. 

I’ll just give you another example.  What’s your favourite tipple?

Katie Upton: Gin.

Robert McEwan: Okay.  So, what brand of gin would you buy?  If somebody said to you they were going to spend, I don’t know, you could buy any bottle of gin you want what would you…?

Katie Upton: Money is no object?

Robert McEwan: Yeah.

Katie Upton: I’ll just go with an Edinburgh Gin.

Robert McEwan: Okay.  Fine.  And roughly how much would that cost?

Katie Upton: £25, £30 a bottle.

Robert McEwan: Okay.  So, if you went into the shop and this £25, let’s call it a £25 bottle was in a plastic bottle like Vimto, would you pay £25 for it?  Probably not, would you?

Katie Upton: No.

Robert McEwan: So, understanding what your packaging is meant to do, in that instance your packaging adds perceived value and is a marketing element of the product itself.  If you then turn round and said it’s now in a plastic bottle, you’d view it very differently.  Wines did try to put wine into a plastic bottle didn’t they not that long ago, from glass, because glass is heavy, plastic is not, but how often do you go in and actually see quality brands putting wine into plastic bottles.  You just don’t see it.  You see the house brands don’t you, for Tesco’s own label or whatever it is of low value wine does sometimes come in a plastic bottle.  Then take how many times do you see wines being drunk in a cardboard box?  You can buy them.

Katie Upton: It’s not great connotations though.

Robert McEwan: It’s not, because the perceived…what your packaging does for you is perceived in a very different manner when you look at all those three scenarios.  You’ve got to really understand, if you take that into industrial packaging which is where we are, you’ve got to understand what your packaging really does.

Katie Upton: Are there a series of questions or steps that people can take to get to the right answer of which packaging product is right for them?

Robert McEwan: Yeah, I always say to my staff here, I always say to them you’ve got to understand what the packaging does.  An example that we had was we had a customer that had these very heavy-duty pallet boxes that they were putting products into and then they put the lid on top of the pallet box, and they had a very heavy duty strap that held the lid on.  The box did all the work as far as the products was concerned because that’s what it was designed and specified to do, but then they were using far too much strap to hold a lid in place.  When you start understanding what does the packaging do, the strap in that instance is just holding the lid, you start then able to look at it and say ‘Okay, we don’t need a heavy duty steel strap, we can use a much lighter alternative’, so that we’re understanding what the packaging does.  I think where it becomes very difficult as far as packaging is concerned is whether you can dig down into what that packaging is meant to do.

Katie Upton: With your client base primarily is that around stabilising and protecting goods rather than feeding into what we discussed around sometimes it’s to do with your marketing or the perceived value?

Robert McEwan: Yeah.  So, if you just take pallet wrapping as an example, if you’ve got a pallet that weighs 500kg, just as an example, the automatic thought is that you need traditionally a 20 µm film and you’d probably need to put about 200g, 250g of film on to make sure that product is stable.  But if you look at how the product is stacked and maybe they might be using layer pads that improve the stability of that pallet, well the pallet wrap actually then becomes less of a securing and more of a dust cover as an example.

I went to a chemical company not so long ago where they had four drums on a pallet, and they were using strap and drum clips that we sell to secure the drums to the pallet.  Their customer insisted on the pallet being pallet wrapped as well, but that pallet wrap then became a dust cover rather than contributing to the stability of the pallet.  So, to me if anybody is looking at their packaging, I would say to them understand what your packaging is really meant to do.  Once you’ve got that understanding you are then in a much better position to choose the right medium to be able to achieve it.

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