Here’s why cardboard food packaging isn’t the answer (even when it’s recycled)
Hi. How are you?
We hope you and your loved ones are safe and well.
It’s been a difficult and daunting few months for everybody, and although the coronavirus lockdown is slowly starting to ease in the UK and across the world, we all know we’ve still got a lot of change ahead of us.
But change doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
There’s a quotation we’ve been thinking about a lot recently. It feels especially apt for a world that’s still coming to grips with the challenges of COVID-19.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
Those are the opening words to Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities and, although he wrote them in 1859, they echo how a lot of people we’ve been talking to are feeling right now. The world is at a point of monumental change, and even though change can be scary, it can also be incredibly valuable. It can give us an important opportunity to address the issues we’ve got wrong in the past and find solutions that will make this world a better place for ourselves, our children, and future generations.
Issues like our relationship to the environment. Climate change, plastic pollution, food waste.
Cardboard isn’t an infinite resource
Did you know that the UK is facing an urgent shortage of cardboard, due to the coronavirus crisis and the sharp rise in home deliveries? And, because there’s a shortage of cardboard, The Recycling Association (TRA) has warned that manufacturers may not be able to produce packaging for foods and medicines? Simon Ellin, chief executive of the TRA, recently said, “Of huge concern to us is the signs that Europe is already becoming short of fibre with which to make cardboard boxes. Food and medical supplies all move by cardboard box, and if we can’t make cardboard boxes, everything stops.” 1
The reason for this shortage is simple. The COVID-19 outbreak caused many councils across the UK to suspend their regular recycling operations, which meant the used paper and cardboard that would generally be recycled to make cardboard packaging has been incinerated or buried in landfill.
As Simon Ellin made clear, it’s not just the UK which is facing this problem. Used paper and cardboard is recycled and shared across Europe and the rest of the world, and that means other countries are on the verge of a cardboard packaging shortage too.
This story was originally reported more than two months ago, only a couple of weeks after the lockdown began. Hopefully, now that the lockdown is gradually being lifted and retailers and council recycling centres are beginning to reopen, cardboard supplies will start to build up again.
But that still doesn’t solve the real problem.
It’s time to find a more eco-friendly packaging solution
If COVID-19 can disrupt cardboard recycling to the extent that essential products like food and medicine packaging are in danger of not being produced, the global packaging industry must start looking for more natural and sustainable solutions.
That’s the reason we created Earth Restored, to produce vegetable-based food packaging that is much more practical, ethical, and environmentally sustainable than traditional cardboard, paper, or plastic packaging alternatives.
Most of us want to do more for the environment, and one of the many things the COVID-19 outbreak has highlighted is how dependant we are on our incredible planet. It isn’t until something like this happens that we realise how vulnerable we are in the face of nature, and how unnatural it is to be separated from our natural world. A lot of us have also begun to recognise how unnecessarily difficult and complicated we’ve made our lives, and how it’s the simple things in life – the things that, until now, we were too busy or stressed out to appreciate – that are most important.
The facts about cardboard packaging
Most people think that cardboard is far better than plastic, and in many ways they’re right. But although paper and cardboard are made from timber, which is a renewable resource, cardboard takes a tremendous amount of energy to produce and discharges more environmentally damaging greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than plastic does.
Paper production is a polluting, water-intensive industry which, according to the World Wildlife Fund2, is the single largest industrial consumer of water in developed countries. It takes five litres of water to create a single sheet of paper, and three sheets of paper to make a single sheet of corrugated cardboard. Chemicals, bleaching agents, and glue are all involved in the process too, and it is well known that the effluent released from pulp and paper mills has a devastating impact on plant and animal life, aquatic habitats, and the health of local communities. Although improvements in paper and cardboard production have been made over the past several years, the physical and ecological damage pulp and paper production causes are still considerable.
And we haven’t even addressed the issue of deforestation. According to BBC Science Focus magazine, around 35% of all chopped down trees are used to make paper, which is 160,000km2 of forest cut down every year. Some figures suggest that deforestation is responsible for nearly a fifth of the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.
Recycling helps, but it’s far from a perfect answer. Not only has COVID-19 proved how easily paper and cardboard recycling can be disrupted, recycling plants often run on electricity generated from fossil fuels. Also, the recycling process still requires water, chemicals, and a small proportion of fresh pulp made from wood chips to create recycled cardboard. Various filtering, chemical, and centrifugal processes are also required to eliminate tape, metals, plastics and ink, ensuring the finished pulp is completely clean. Even after the cleaned pulp is dried and pressed into sheets, it still has to be glued together to make new cardboard.
See what we mean? Even though recycling one tonne of cardboard can save up to 17 trees and reduce the demand for landfill, cardboard recycling still has a significantly negative impact on our environment.
Using natural, sustainable materials is the answer
We believe that Earth Restored food packaging and tableware is the natural, environmentally friendly solution to all the food packaging industry’s problems. All our products are sustainable and biodegradable, and they can be easily composted and recycled. They’re plastic and chemical-free, heat and moisture resistant, and a lot stronger and more resilient than cardboard alternatives.
Just as importantly, we’ll never cut down trees to make our Earth Restored products. Instead, we wait until the areca palm leaves have fallen naturally to the ground and then we dry, cure, and heat press them into shape. Finally, every product we produce is thoroughly washed in fresh, clean, running water.
Our areca leaf food packaging is also a lot safer than recycled cardboard packaging. Researchers in Switzerland have discovered that harmful mineral oils from the printing inks used on cardboard can migrate into food when recycled cardboard is used for food packaging.3 Because our packaging is entirely natural and isn’t tainted by any inks or chemicals the food inside will never be contaminated.
We only launched Earth Restored a couple of months ago, and we know that we’re not going to change the food packaging industry overnight. But it’s time the industry realised that traditional cardboard and plastic packaging isn’t the way forward. Using raw vegetable materials like areca leaves isn’t just better for the environment, and a huge step towards solving the problem of climate change, it’s also more cost-effective and a lot safer for us all.
The world is changing.
With your help and support, this is a positive change we can all make together.