NGO report : Paper-based food packaging at the centre of Europe’s waste crisis

Eco-friendly tableware - kraft paper food packaging on light green background. Street food paper packaging, recyclable paperware, zero waste packaging concept. Flat lay
© Iryna Mylinska -

Paper-based food packaging is marketed as a sustainable alternative to plastic, despite the fact that it is usually combined with plastics or other chemical coatings, rarely contains recycled content, and drives global deforestation and industrial water use, according to a new report by a coalition of NGOs including the European Environmental Bureau, Zero Waste Europe, Fern, Environmental Paper Network and the Rethink Plastic alliance.

As the EU revises its rules to tackle the uncontrolled growth of packaging waste, the report examines whether single-use paper is a credible solution to Europe's growing waste crisis - an argument regularly used in expensive and far-reaching lobbying campaigns by packaging manufacturers and fast food brands. To investigate, the NGO coalition, made up of organisations that typically focus on plastic pollution, teamed up with deforestation NGOs and commissioned a study from the independent research organisation Profundo.

Greenwashing of paper packaging

The analysis showed that paper-based packaging is the largest source of packaging waste in the EU. With 32.7 million tonnes of waste generated in 2020, paper alone will generate more waste than the next two largest waste streams, plastic and glass, combined. The report reveals that paper-based packaging is a major driver of deforestation in Europe and around the world. Around 90% of paper pulp is made from wood and paper production accounts for around 35% of all trees felled.

The report shows that Brazil is Europe's largest supplier of pulp and paper, supplying more to Europe than the region's largest producers - Sweden and Finland. Brazil has tripled its pulp production in the last two decades and now covers an area of 7.2 million hectares - twice the size of Belgium. Eucalyptus and pine plantations in Brazil are exacerbating water scarcity, forest fires and biodiversity loss. In Europe, Finnish forests have become a net emitter of carbon dioxide due to overgrowth, and 76% of Finnish forest habitats are classified as threatened.

Marco Musso, Senior Policy Officer for Circular Economy at the European Environmental Bureau said: ”This study sounds the alarm on the false solutions of substituting one single-use material for another. The public and policy makers are being misled about the sustainability and circularity of paper-based food packaging. To credibly prevent waste EU decision-makers must focus on restricting avoidable packaging while promoting efficient and convenient reuse systems. This is particularly crucial in the food and drinks sector which accounts for two-thirds of the total packaging market in Europe.”

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Hazardous chemicals in paper packaging hamper recycling and endanger consumer health

The report highlights the serious limitations of recycling paper-based food and beverage packaging. Food and beverage packaging is almost always combined with plastics or chemicals to make it waterproof or grease-resistant, making it difficult to recycle. This means that in practice food packaging is often incinerated or landfilled. This shows that recycling alone will definitely not be enough to mitigate the growing demand for virgin fibre, led by the uncontrolled growth of single-use paper packaging. The combination of paper with plastics and chemicals also casts a new light on the consumer safety credentials of paper packaging.

Dorota Napierska, Toxic-free Circular Economy Policy Officer at Zero Waste Europe said:“Repeated lab tests are revealing that hazardous chemicals - including those that can cause cancer and disturb our hormones such as PFAS - are present in paper and cardboard food packaging, and that they migrate from the packaging material and end up in consumers’ bodies.”

Reuse instead of single-use paper and plastic

The ongoing revision of EU packaging waste legislation is Europe's best chance to break our addiction to the wasteful take-make-dispose model of single-use packaging. The report concludes that the EU and Member States should promote well-designed reuse systems to credibly prevent waste generation.

Sergio Baffoni, Campaign Coordinator at the Environmental Paper Network, said:“On average, three billion trees are cut each year for global paper packaging - and this is set to rise. The European Commission proposes banning all single-use packaging in restaurants. This is a good place to start when it comes to reducing pressure on forests. To curb growing demands for pulp, the EU should also phase out single-use paper-based packaging for takeaway.”