Carton vs flexible packaging: Who wins the debate?

As a sustainable flexible packaging supplier we’re are always happy to see brand owners embrace sustainability through better packaging. However with sustainable packaging receiving more attention we’ve also seen more confusion. All too often we see brand owners feel like they have to switch away from plastic packaging to alternatives like carton ‘because it’s more sustainable’. And not only will this switch cost them millions….In many cases Packaging Sustainability is far less cut-and-dry as people think. Few sustainability comparisons truly look at the lifetime value of a piece of packaging. Lifetime value also takes into account the factors pictured below: 

Plastic packaging vs Carton packaging sustainability case study

This study (by the independent PTIS) illustrates that a ‘flexible pouch’ (stand-up pouch made from plastic) is much more efficient in many aspects.

So if it’s not CO2 or water consumption that makes plastic packaging seem ‘unsustainable’, then what is?  

Behavior and perception

Plastics were designed to be very lightweight flexible packaging: efficient and built to last. The upsides to this are numerous: plastics keep tons of products safe (food and beverage packaging, consumer products, electronics, etc.) under difficult circumstances and for long periods. The downside to this is human behavior. When people carelessly throw away their product packaging these same upsides turn sour. Because the same upsides that make plastic so good at their role also guarantee it’ll stay with us for a long time. This also makes plastic pollution more easy to spot. Consumers don’t get to see the electric bills of a carton factory. And these are multitudes higher for the same output when compared to plastic producers!  

They do see the end product. Which is exactly the point where plastics still have the most room for improvement. Luckily, this improvement is happening year by year. Both in the front-end, where companies like ourselves are constantly improving our plastic to be more recyclable, and actually re-using recycled plastic to permanently ‘close the loop’. But improvement is also happening at the end of the line. As illustrated in the ‘Marine Litter Solutions’ executive summary of June 2020: 

 Growth in ocean litter reduction projects

This image perfectly illustrates the massive continued growth in members, countries and projects that are actively reducing Ocean Litter all over the world. As these kinds of groups continue to grow, and consumers are better educated and motivated to recycle their plastic (f.e. through turn in programs and fully recyclable packaging), plastic will continue to reduce their last true sustainable downside.  And as this trend continues to improve plastics will only pull away further in the sustainability rankings: considering it’s already the most efficient during the majority

A calculation made during a NHL Stenden’s thesis perfectly illustrates this lifetime CO2 output per packaging type/ unit. This also shows how Plastic Packaging its CO2 output has such a large proportion of ‘publicly aware’ output. This has partly lead to Plastic packaging’s negative sentiment.  

Calculated CO2 per packaging type

Packaging CO2 lifetime output
Plastic: 0,89 KG
Glass: 0,92 KG
Carton: 0,964 KG
Cans: 1,351 KG

*Direct CO2 emissions: all product-related greenhouse gasses that are created internally within the own company.
*Indirect CO2 emissions: all product-related greenhouse gasses that are created externally, but that are required to produce the product. For example production energy and raw materials. 

Carton vs Flexible packaging: Flexible packaging production is unmatched in efficiency and thus very lightweight packaging

As mentioned above greenhouse gas is a very important but often forgotten dimension of sustainable packaging. Plastic packaging is very efficient to produce. This in turn reduces the lifetime carbon footprint. Compared to all of its peers plastic is the most efficient to produce. See for yourself with the American Chemistry Council’s calculations:

Material and Energy efficiency in packaging production per packaging type

The reasons behind this efficiency are many:
• Because of Plastic’s incredibly flexibility it boasts the highest packaging per product rate (in other words; how much air and thus unnecessary space are you packing?),
• Due to its light weight but high strength and durability, plastic is by far the easiest and most efficient to transport. Both during the different stages of production, and once it’s wrapped around a product and headed towards the consumers.
• Plastics also help prevent food waste because of the ease with which plastic packaging can add barriers and be frozen. As food waste is another gigantic co2 waste in of itself this is a very significant factor in the total packaging sustainability!

In summary to illustrate the arguments, we created an infographic:

Carbon vs Plastic Packaging infographicWhitepaper with total CO2 packaging output

Carbon vs Plastic Packaging infographic

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