Addressing the Problem with Paper-based Packaging

As  consumers in Europe, we don’t have much direct control over the packaging our products come in. Individual choices about how and where we shop will only get us so far. But as citizens, we can work together to create the systemic changes needed to transform our packaging and waste management infrastructure. A growing network of individuals and organisations across Europe is working to make sure these systemic changes come about. Organisations from the forest movement, the paper movement, the no plastics movement and the Zero Waste movement, all agree that a reduction in packaging, not a switch to paper packaging, is necessary.

The European Union (EU) is currently revising its rules around packaging and packaging waste. As paper and card are major packaging materials, the new packaging rules could have a big impact on European paper consumption.


Will these rules increase demand for paper-based packaging, or help to restructure the Waste Economy?

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Take action

1. Join the mailing list

The EU-Paper Packaging Waste mailing list allows us all to exchange information and insights about the paper packaging consumption in general, and the EU Packaging Waste Regulation in particular. You can join the list by sending a request to – please let us know who you are and why you’re interested in joining the list.

2. Send a letter

A fantastic first action is to write to a Member of the European Parliament (MEPs) from your own country who sits on one of the committees that will make the first decisions about the Packaging Regulation. Ask for a meeting with them to discuss your concerns. If you are granted a meeting, great! We can help you to prepare for this every step of the way – just get in touch.

You can download a sample letter, translated by DeepL in to various languages, in the document Letters and addresses EU packaging Regulation. There is also a list of priority MEPs for several EU countries, with contact details.

Paper-based packaging is part of a new global pulp and paper boom

Despite global commitments to stop deforestation, the virgin pulp industry is booming. From being stagnant five years ago, there has been huge investments worldwide to increase pulp & paper production capacity.  This map charts planned and proposed new pulp capacity around the world (especially in South America, Europe, and Indonesia).

In Europe, part of the growing demand comes from E-commerce (delivered in vast numbers of throwaway cardboard boxes), and people swapping plastic for paper-based packaging for takeaway and restaurant food. In 2020, people living in the EU produced over 10kg extra paper packaging waste per person than in 2012.

Throwaway paper packaging is a justice and equity issue, with a human cost

The pulp and paper industry is one of the world’s major polluters and one of the heaviest users of freshwater. It also consumes four per cent of the world’s energy and is chemically intensive, polluting rivers and harming ecosystems. Starkest of all – it leaves a trail of human suffering, as a result of the monoculture plantations that suffocate the communities living near them.

This report of case studies from Sweden, Finland, Portugal, Chile and Indonesia unveils the environmental and human cost of switching to paper-based packaging.

Paper is amazing, it has literally transformed our societies. But we also use far too much of it. While in rich economies we use it for throwaway packaging for everything from hamburgers and salt sachets to online delivery boxes, in many poorer economies people lack sufficient reading and writing, hygiene and other crucial materials. Reducing our throwaway paper packaging consumption in Europe is also about acknowledging the need for fair global paper distribution that provides for everyone. You can read the Environmental Paper Network’s Global Paper Vision here.

Even within Europe, the companies producing excess packaging are rarely the ones burdened with the labour and cost of dealing with the waste it produces. This is left down to individual consumers and local municipal authorities, while companies continue to justify throwaway paper packaging as the ‘cost-effective’ solution to single-use plastic.

Will the EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR) Restructure the Waste Economy?

The EU draft Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR) aims to tackle virtually all packaging types in the EU, but the paper issue has become a real battleground in negotiations. It will be a struggle to stop the policy from intensifying throwaway paper consumption across Europe.With a vote in the European Parliament planned for September, the next few months will be crucial.

The fast food and packaging industry are lobbying hard to make throwaway paper the default response to reduced single-use plastic, even McDonalds is getting in on the act. Their inputs can be seen in many of the Regulation amendments that have been tabled. The report of the PPWR rapporteur Frédérique Ries even scrapped some of the reuse targets that were in the Commission’s original draft.

NGOs have come together to develop a position paper outlining how the Regulation should be reformed in order to make sure paper-based packaging doesn’t end up slipping through the cracks.

Recycling alone cannot solve the problem

One of the reasons that paper-based packaging is so popular is that people believe it can be easily recycled. In fact paper recycling rates have been declining, market shifts linked to demand for higher quality recycled paper have rendered the existing global paper recycling infrastructure both technologically insufficient, and uneconomic. These market shifts are among the reasons for the most recent global pulp & paper boom, as you can read in this 2019 article.

Paper-based packaging presents particular challenges both when it comes to recycling and using recycled paper content. There are two main reasons.

First, recycling paper packaging requires complex infrastructure, which is hard to find. This means that most packaging isn’t recycled or composted, even if it says it can be.

Paper fibres can only be recycled a few times before they degrade completely. This means that any rise in overall use of paper for packaging will inevitably increase demand for virgin pulp eventually, even with the best possible recycling solutions. You can read about this and other false solutions on the Solving Packaging website.

Reuse businesses, and most Europeans, want change

When it comes to packaging, the alternative to single-use paper is reuse. Real plates which can be washed in professional dishwashers instead of throwaway paper plates. Sturdy crates which can be used in transport hundreds of times instead of single use cardboard boxes. Glass jars or sturdy plastic boxes which can be used to transport cooked foods. There are already businesses who are making these solutions a reality, including small businesses described in this report, and larger businesses who have come together in the New business reuse alliance.

Citizens’ wish to end the waste economy for all materials was reflected in an early 2023 poll conducted for Fern, which revealed that more than two-thirds of surveyed Europeans are troubled by the rise in paper and cardboard packaging. Public support to get rid of single-use packaging also came across clearly during the international online #MakeThrowAwayGoAway day of Action which happened across over 15 countries and generated hundreds of thousands of views on Twitter and Instagram.

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