The Sustainable Packaging Conundrum: Would You Like Paper or Plastic?

The Sustainable Packaging Conundrum: Would You Like Paper or Plastic?

If you’re reading this, you have probably made an online purchase at some point in the past year. And, if you live in the US, at least one of those purchases was from Amazon because – according to a poll conducted last year by NPR – more than two-thirds of Americans have made an Amazon purchase. The ubiquity of Amazon and other e-commerce websites in American life has broadly expanded awareness of something else—protective packaging, which was a $27 billion market in 2018.

The Many Faces of Protective Packaging

If you’ve ever made an online purchase at all, you’ve likely noticed the air pillows, bubble wrap, or other fill used to keep your product safe—if only because you had to throw it away afterwards. Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the impact that packaging has on the environment, leading retailers and manufacturers to burnish their reputations by offering more recyclable or biodegradable packaging.

Enter paper. It’s a renewable resource, and it’s easily recyclable if clean. As a result, paper fill is rapidly growing in popularity in both e-commerce and manufacturing applications, according to a recent report by The Freedonia Group. Other paper protective packaging products, such as paperboard protectors, are also used as substitutes for not-at-all-recyclable alternatives like molded foams.

Plastic Air Pillows: More Sustainable Than You Might Think

So why then, the last time you opened an Amazon box, did you still see lots of big, fluffy, plastic air pillows? After all, paper is recyclable, while plastic packaging is a serious pollution issue! What’s taking so long?

There are several reasons why plastic protective packaging like air pillows might be used, and why it might actually be more environmentally friendly than paper in some cases.

  • Many air pillows are in fact recyclable, even if not at curbside pickup. In the US, they must be taken to stores that offer plastic bag drop-off bins.
  • Air pillows and bubble packaging are lighter by volume than paper, reducing the overall weight of the package. This not only reduces shipping costs, but over thousands of packages also reduces the carbon footprint of e-commerce orders.
  • A number of companies – including Amazon – are taking packaging reduction one step further and eliminating boxes altogether by using plastic mailers padded with bubbles. This further reduces package weight and transit costs. Furthermore, some of these mailers are recyclable at store drop-offs.

In sum, although paper remains the greenest option if a retailer is concerned about consumer perception, it may not be the greenest for e-commerce companies looking to reduce the carbon footprint of their products’ delivery. For the eco-conscious consumer willing to do a little bit of research and extra legwork, it turns out that the issue is more complicated than it first appears, and that plastic protective packaging isn’t as bad as it might seem when you first open the box.

For More Information on the Protective Packaging Market

Interested in finding out more about protective packaging? Check out Global Protective Packaging, a recent study from The Freedonia Group. This study covers the following packaging types:

Flexible: protective mailers, bubble packaging, paper fill, air pillows, dunnage bags, and other flexible products (like surface protection films)
Foam:  molded foams, insulated shipping containers, foam-in-place polyurethane, polyolefin rolled foams, loose fill, and other foam products (like bio-based foams)
Rigid: paperboard protectors, molded pulp, and other rigid products (like vacuum insulated panels)

The study presents demand by product type, application, and geographic sector, with historical data disclosed for 2008, 2013, and 2018; and forecasts for 2023. 

About the Author:

Zoe Biller is an Industry Analyst at the Freedonia Group where she develops and writes reports on the global chemicals, capital goods, and polymers & materials markets.

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