New study: Switching from plastic to paperboard can reduce a package’s climate impact by as much as 99%

For those who influence the choice of packaging materials, this one, single choice can make the biggest climate impact during a product manager’s or designer’s entire professional career! That’s the conclusion of a study done by IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute for Sweden-based Iggesund Paperboard. The IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute was jointly founded in 1966 by the Swedish government and the packaging industry in that country to conduct research into the industry’s air and water management issues. Today, IVL is an environmental institute that focuses on the interplay between environmental, economic and social perspectives. The starting point of the study was to examine some of the most common packaging types and compare their differences in climate impact – depending, of course, on the choice of packaging material used).

Johan Granås.

“There are tables giving carbon dioxide emissions per kilo of material, but when you compare real examples of packaging, you realize the great importance of the choice of material,” said Johan Granås, Sustainability Director at Iggesund Paperboard. “Plastic is a fantastic material for many applications, and we use it ourselves when producing paperboard for food packaging that needs a thin plastic barrier to protect its contents,” he revealed. “But we believe that decision makers in the packaging industry must know all about the effects of their choice of materials.”

By switching from plastic to paperboard, it’s possible to reduce the climate impact of some lightbulb packaging by up to 99%.

For example, packaging light bulbs in plastic or paperboard respectively, was the most extreme example the survey revealed. By switching from plastic to paperboard, it’s possible to reduce the climate impact of that particular type of packaging by 99%. In the example that was most favourable for plastic, a paperboard carton containing 500 grams of pasta was compared with the corresponding amount of pasta packed in a thin plastic bag. The conclusion was that the plastic bag had a 3.25 times (i.e. 325%) greater climate impact than the paperboard carton. This is despite the fact that the plastic bag only weighed one-sixth as much as the paperboard carton – and had significantly worse protective and stacking properties.

“There are masses of packaging that cannot be made in anything other than plastic today,” Granås admitted. “But there are also packages that are made of plastic where it’s easy to switch materials without losing any function at all – and it’s logical to start there if we want to reduce packaging’s climate impact.” For the paperboard packaging used in the study, climate data for Iggesund’s paperboard Invercote was used. For the plastic materials, IVL drew on data from databases used for performing lifecycle analyses. None of the paperboard packaging used in the study was made of material from Iggesund Paperboard. “This is a study that shows the climate impact of different types of packaging. The mandate for IVL was to be general. Neither they nor we know the climate data for each individual packaging. However, based on the recognized environmental databases, this definitely indicates the great importance of the choice of materials,” Granås concluded.

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Tony Curcio is the editor of Graphic Arts Magazine.