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Plastic alternatives for packaging

08 Oct 2021 —
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There are many reasons why plastics are so widely used across a range of industries in most global economies.

There are many reasons why plastics are so widely used across a range of industries in most global economies.

Plastics are durable, flexible, lightweight and low-cost. They increase the shelf-life of food and beverages, enabling secure and energy-efficient transportation of goods and provide valuable marketing opportunities for businesses.


Last year, packaging accounted for over 40% of the 380 million tons¹ of plastics produced worldwide, according to Plastic Oceans International. As useful as plastics are for packaging purposes, however, their downside has become increasingly apparent. The oceans currently contain an estimated 150 million tons of plastics — much of it circulating in country-sized gyres. With just 9% of all plastic packaging recycled each year, 95% of the value of plastic packaging, ($80-$120 billion annually), is lost after a single-use, according to the World Economic Forum.


In 2018, the European Commission adopted the ambitious goal of reusing or recycling all plastic packaging produced in the Eurozone by 2030. It intends to dramatically reduce single-use plastics and restrict the intentional production of microplastics — small pieces of plastic that may have particularly bad impacts on natural ecosystems.


With the demand for packaging material expected to continue growing, there is a pressing need for more sustainable, eco-friendly solutions. Those solutions fall into two broad categories:


  • Optimising the production and use of plastics largely through greater reuse and recycling of packaging products;
  • The replacement of fossil fuel-based plastics with alternative materials that are more friendly to the environment.

Optimising the use of plastics

With plastics so widely used in the economy, producers and consumers need to better manage the full lifecycle of plastic products. The sourcing of more eco-friendly materials in production and more efficient recycling of finished products can both dramatically reduce negative impacts on the environment.


There are a number of ways to optimise both plastics production and waste management:

  • Bio-based plastics are produced from renewable feedstocks such as vegetable oils, corn starch or cellulose as opposed to fossil fuels. Many of them—though not all—biodegrade more readily than traditional plastics.
  • Biodegradable plastics degrade more easily with fewer negative by-products than fossil fuel-based plastics. They include most bio-based plastics as well as mixes between petrochemicals and biodegradable materials.
  • Reusable plastics, by definition, reduce the amount of single-use packaging - a key objective of the European Commission’s overall plastics strategy. Some forms of plastic, like high-density polyethylene (HDPE) used for opaque bottles, are more easily reusable than others.
  • Post-industrial recycled (PIR) and post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastics are essentially recycled materials used to produce new plastic packaging. Greater use of PIR and PCR plastics results in less use of virgin resources and energy in the production process.


recycled plastic packaging

Paper still has a role to play

Paper and cardboard made from trees remain an attractive alternative particularly for packaging that does not require a barrier to keep out moisture and oxygen. More efficient coating materials are also making paper-based packaging for perishable goods more competitive with plastics. Nestlé Japan is already using paper to wrap chocolate bars and beverage maker Carlsberg has created the first 100% bio-based paper beer bottle.


A major advantage of paper as a packaging material is its recyclability. Over 72% of paper consumed in Europe is currently recycled according to the European Paper Recycling Council, although recycling paper used in packaging for food and beverages is more challenging.


Paper is also a renewable resource and if managed properly is far more eco-friendly than fossil fuel-based plastics. Organisations like the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification, (PEFC), and the Forest Stewardship Council, (FSC) certify paper products that are derived from sustainably managed forests. Greater use of certified paper products will help preserve and sustain the forests that produce this valuable renewable resource.



Packaging with innovative materials

Innovative and eco-friendly materials that can replace plastics made from crude oil or natural gas are also attracting interest from leading companies.


  • Mycelium, the root material of mushrooms can be mixed with agricultural waste to create a resilient and completely biodegradable packaging material. Leading companies like Ikea and Crate & Barrel are already using it as a substitute for plastic.
  • Seaweed, abundant, easy to grow and biodegradable in four to six weeks, is ideal for small-scale disposable packaging. Edible water bottles, cups and straws made from seaweed have drawn the interest of companies like Pernod Ricard SA and Marriot International.
  • Bamboo, the fastest growing plant on the planet and a workhorse in sequestering carbon dioxide emissions, can be used to create durable, recyclable, heat-resistant packaging that is fully bio-degradable. Dell currently uses it for tablet and notebook computer packaging.
  • Bagasse, a sugarcane by-product, offers heat and water-resistant properties for packaging similar to polystyrene. It is biodegradable and compostable.
  • Fish waste and algae can be used to create bio-degradable and highly functional packaging products. MarinaTex is a clear, flexible, food-grade safe bioplastic made from fish waste and algae that is used to make disposable shopping bags and food packaging.



Living with less plastic

Between 1950 and 2017, 9.2 billion tons of plastic was manufactured² — more than a ton for every person now living on earth. With 79% of annual plastic production still ending up in landfills or as litter on land and in the oceans, the pollution problem is becoming ever more acute. The United Nations Environment Programme estimates the external costs of plastic pollution are at least $40 billion annually.


The solutions are clear though many challenges remain in order to implement them cost-effectively. The plastic recycling opportunity is enormous, but it will require better product design standards and an upgrade of recycling infrastructure across global economies. It will also require the participation of all stakeholders from consumers to businesses to governments.


There are hundreds of eco-friendly packaging solutions based on innovative materials and more efficient manufacturing and waste management processes. None of them are a silver bullet for the problem of plastics pollution, but all of them can be part of the solution.


  • 9% of all plastic is recycled
  • 12% of plastic is incinerated
  • 79% of plastic is sent to landfills or leaked into the environment
  • 94% of Europeans think industry and retailers should try to reduce plastic packaging
  • +250 businesses across all stages of the plastic packaging value chain represent over 20% of all plastic packaging used globally 
  • 2030, the year all plastic packaging in the EU market should be reusable or recyclable 
  • 10 million tons of plastic are now dumped into our oceans every year
  • 9.2 billion tons of plastic were produced between 1950 and 2017, which is more than 1 ton for each person now living on Earth – and the biggest share consists of single-use products and packaging



1 - Plastic Oceans, 2020

2 - Statista - Global plastic materials flow 1950-2017

3 - Europe Stat EUROPA pan-european factsheet (2019); Eurobarometer; PlasticsEurope; Eurostat; Ellen MacArthur Foundation; Plastic Oceans; UN Environment Programme (2020)