The Next Paper Straw

by Omar Asali, Chairman & CEO Ranpak Holdings


Over the past century, human progress has accelerated at an exponential rate, radically changing our day-to-day lives and, along with that, our impact on the planet.

In 1919, the automobile was rare, air travel nonexistent, and the idea of a computer, let alone a smartphone, was inconceivable. Today, less than two human lifetimes later, all this and more is commonplace – even mundane.

We are better off today than we ever have been – we live longer, have a better standard of living, and have more at our fingertips – both things and knowledge. At the same time, this progress has brought great challenges for the environment.

As one example, plastic production has rapidly accelerated throughout the century, leading today to an unprecedented crisis. In 2018, e-commerce accounted for nearly 10% of all retail sales. Anyone buying products is a consumer of secondary plastic packaging (that is, the plastic air pillows, bubble wrap and Styrofoam peanuts that protect your purchases for shipping). Whether it’s bubble wrap around a wine bottle or plastic air pillows cushioning a box of wine glasses, the useful life of all that plastic packaging ends when the cardboard box is opened. But the plastic lives on – in fact, it outlives us all.

The useful-lifetime-to-time-on-Earth ratio of plastic packaging is historically low and will only get lower as e-commerce increasingly moves to one-day and same-day shipping. After the wine is long gone and glasses washed, the plastic packaging that protected them during shipping will clog our waterways for centuries.

We have made great leaps over the last hundred years, yet, a piece of plastic shipped today will still be here a hundred years into the future, and has the potential to mar our natural environment until long after our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are gone.

Will this be our legacy? Does it have to be this way? Absolutely not.

There is a simple, environmentally sustainable alternative – paper. Paper is readily curbside recyclable. Paper that is not recycled decomposes in landfills within months. And with advances in sustainable forestry, raw paper supplies can be produced in a manner that sustains the life cycle of our forests.

Consider the plastic straw. Replacing plastic straws with paper ones may seem insignificant in the grand scheme of the plastic pollution problem, yet the movement to replace plastic straws with paper ones is much more consequential than these naysayers would suggest. Why? Because switching to paper straws is easy. And, since most of us use plastic straws, everyone can play a part in this simple act of protecting our environment.

As more and more of us buy products online, we are presented with an opportunity to play a simple role here as well. Eliminating plastic packaging in e-commerce would significantly counter our plastic pollution problem. And even better – doing so would not affect our ability to buy exactly the products we want. The environment would just have less plastic to choke on.

So how can we play our part in moving to paper-based protective packaging solutions? Once again, consider the plastic straw. For years, millions of plastic straws were used around the world without a second thought. Then, the public suddenly woke up to the reality we’re facing today and became engaged – forcing businesses and governments to take note. As a result, we now see more and more paper straws every day, and plastic ones will hopefully one day be in the rearview mirror, and importantly, out of our landfills and oceans.

It’s become clear that businesses and governments respond, often surprisingly swiftly, to public engagement. As such, it’s time we demand that the businesses we purchase from reduce their use of plastic packaging. Let’s do our part and make paper packaging the next paper straw. Our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will thank us for it.

Will moving to paper-based protective packaging alone “solve” our plastic pollution problem? Of course not. But, according to National Geographic, of the approximately 450 million tons of plastic produced annually, over 160 million tons is used for packaging. That’s a lot of plastic.

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