“The human cost of overpackaging” (Fern, Environmental Paper Network)

Anna Triponel

May 5, 2023
Our key takeaway: “Paper or plastic?” This question comes to many of us at the checkout counter, but it’s not quite as simple a trade-off as it seems. According to NGOs Fern and the Environmental Paper Network, large-scale production and use of paper packaging is contributing to many of the same adverse human rights and environmental impacts as single-use plastics, and shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a less-damaging alternative to plastic packaging. Irresponsible forestry practices and monoculture plantations can cause higher carbon emissions, loss of biodiversity, water depletion, soil erosion, flooding, wildfires and more. The human rights impacts of these environmental issues are serious, especially for vulnerable groups like indigenous peoples, rural land-based communities and human rights and environmental defenders. The report urges companies to think beyond simply switching packaging materials for other options perceived as lower-waste and instead consider how they can reduce overall packaging and paper use in their value chains. Companies can identify and address packaging-linked human rights and environmental risks by conducting robust environmental due diligence along the full value chain—both upstream and downstream. They can also seek to engage closely with suppliers and build leverage with peers to understand where their paper and pulp is coming from and how it’s produced, as well as to influence improvement in practices and provide remedy, where needed.

Fern and the Environmental Paper Network released Unwrapping a Disaster: The Human Cost of Overpackaging (May 2023):

  • A mounting pile of paper waste: According to the report, “packaging and packaging waste in the EU is rising faster” than its GDP, with the average EU citizen disposing around 10 kilograms more packaging waste today compared to a decade ago. In addition, “50% of paper consumed in the EU [is] destined for packaging” and a significant chunk of wood harvested globally goes directly towards pulp and paper production. According to the report, “[t]he vast majority—over 70 per cent—of the virgin wood used for pulp and paper production comes from roundwood. According to the industry, these are logs and branches. The rest comes from chips and residues from sawmills.” Without concerted action, the report estimates that EU packaging waste will increase another 19% by 2030. In November 2022, the European Commission released its proposed regulation on packaging and packaging waste to standardise EU packaging and waste rules and reduce overall amounts. The authors of the report welcome this first step towards uniform rules on packaging and waste, but note that it is not yet sufficient “to arrest the paper industry’s long-standing damage to forests and people.”
  • Paper waste poses risks to both people and planet: The report highlights different ways in which the global forestry industry is causing harm, focusing on top paper and pulp-producing countries both within and outside of the EU including Portugal, Finland, Sweden, Chile and Indonesia. For instance, the demand for paper and pulp is helping to contribute to the spread of industrial commercial monoculture plantations. These can replace old-growth forests and high-conservation value peatlands—both of which are extremely important carbon sinks helping us to combat global warming. The destruction of these natural ecosystems has also destroyed an important buffer against wildfires. The report spotlights the deadly 2017 wildfires in Portugal that were able to spread unfettered due to the prevalence of single-species, high fire-risk eucalyptus plantations. Monocultures can also cause biodiversity loss, soil degradation and erosion, water depletion and flooding. Another serious risk is to biodiversity, for example the “destruction of endangered species in Sweden’s forests” and harm to sensitive ecosystems. Irresponsible forestry can also have serious negative impacts on human rights. For example, the report states that “[t]he Indigenous Mapuche people in southern central Chile have paid a heavy price for the economic success of the country’s pulp and paper industry – which along with Brazil and Uruguay, produces about a third of the world’s pulp exports.” They have faced the loss of the ancestral lands and natural resources, forced eviction, and depleted water supplies leading to drought and wildfires, that in turn can contribute to serious health issues. (As a separate but related issue, the prevalence of illegal logging and timber is a significant driver of attacks against human rights and environmental defenders, per the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre’s just-released briefing on the status of human rights defenders in 2022.)
  • Paper or plastic? Not quite: Ultimately, the report cautions both companies and consumers against assuming that paper-based packaging is necessarily a better option than plastic packaging. It calls on companies to reduce the overall amount of packaging used along their full value chains, rather than just switching to different materials: “Paper packaging is not a sustainable alternative to plastic and reducing our packaging footprint is therefore an essential part of efforts to protect the forests, the people [described] in the case studies, and the climate we all depend upon.” The authors believe that the proposed EU regulation on packaging and packaging waste—which focuses on all types of packaging—is driving “a wholesale move towards disposable paper packaging, as a way of minimising plastic packaging.” To avoid this outcome, companies can work with suppliers and peers to examine the provenance of the wood and pulp used in their own packaging and other paper-based materials. Conducting robust environmental due diligence along the full value chain—both upstream and downstream—is a key first step to identifying whether a company is connected to harmful forestry practices and human rights impacts.

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