As we approach the end of 2023, we’re entering the peak season for packaging waste. From delivery boxes to wrapping paper and plastic packaging for all those mince pies, the festive season fills bins with a lot more than good cheer. In fact, the figures would dampen the spirits of even the most enthusiastic festive revellers. Research shows that Americans generate 23% more waste in December than in any other month of the year. They bin a whopping 5.3 million tonnes more – the equivalent weight of 28,713 Boeing 747 airplanes[1]. In the UK, Biffa recycling centres receive around 40% more material than usual during the first two weeks of January, including waste that can’t be recycled[2].

Why is packaging harmful to nature?

We all know that packaging is necessary to protect and transport goods. And it’s a big business. The global packaging market has grown from $894 billion in 2019 to $1,099 billion in 2023[3]. But its production uses natural resources, generates pollution (including waste) and contributes to climate change. Plastic packaging is particularly contentious – in part because it’s linked to plastic waste in oceans. Regulators and consumers are increasingly aware of these issues; and policy and regulations for packaging are gearing up, especially for plastics.

Key packaging trends

There are four key trends affecting packaging companies.

  • Convenience is driving the need for flexible packaging, such as food pouches, tubes and microwavable food bags. Flexible packaging is lightweight, tends to be easy to open and customise, but it’s not always recyclable. 
  • Consumer demand is pushing for packaging which is more sustainable.
  • Digital online purchases are increasing, but the current default is for products and packaging to be the same for in-store and online sales. There is an additional layer of packaging (known as secondary packaging) for online deliveries. Designing products and their packaging specifically for online sales could remove the need for secondary packaging.
  • Regulation to tackle packaging waste, especially plastic, is increasing. The standout is the recently adopted EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive (EU-PPWD). 

Plastic not fantastic

Not all plastics are equal. Some types are more widely recycled than others. Currently, less than 10% of plastics are recycled[4], despite around 62% of plastic polymers being technically recyclable[5]. This is mainly because the collection, cleaning and recycling capacity doesn't exist. Current facilities can’t keep up with the volume and growth of plastic waste.

Importantly, the cost of recycling waste doesn't always stack up against making plastics from new materials. Better policies are needed from governments, with taxes on packaging from new materials, greater segregation of plastic types and more capacity for recycling. But recycling can’t and won’t solve all the plastic waste woes, festive or otherwise.

There are other issues with plastics. Research shows that many common plastics contain and leach hazardous chemicals, including endocrine-disrupting chemicals that are harmful to human health. Other chemicals used in plastics – such as polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAs), which are used to improve barrier properties (that is, coatings) – are thought to be carcinogens. This is one of the reasons why the new EU-PPWD is trying to ban PFAs in packaging.

There are also concerns about potential contamination in post-consumer plastics. A recent study showed that recycled plastics examined in 13 countries contained hundreds of toxic chemicals, including pesticides and pharmaceuticals[6]. Potentially toxic chemicals in plastics could also complicate their reuse, disposal and hinder recycling.

Increasing costs are also a concern as policy moves towards greater taxation for plastic packaging. Extended Producer Responsibility policies put the onus on producers (the companies putting their products in the packaging) to pay for the full lifecycle cost of the material. This kind of policy is gaining traction globally.

Plastic’s loss is paper’s gain

Fibre-based packaging (that is, paper and cardboard) is in the best position to gain from a plastic-free trend. It's cheaper than metal or glass, consumers think of paper as being 'green', and it's biodegradable. The problem with fibre-based packaging is that it's not waterproof, gets soggy (think paper straws), and it's absorbent without coatings (think oil in your pizza box). It doesn’t have the barrier properties you get from plastic unless there are additions. For example, you couldn't have your coffee in your 'paper' cup without the addition of a barrier. But how they are added, commonly through plastics or other chemical coatings, can affect their recyclability. Consumers are also concerned about the health effects of these barriers (see PFAs above). Sustainable innovations will be required to overcome the barrier property issue for fibre to replace plastic.

Final thoughts…

At an individual level, improved labelling from plastic producers would help reduce confusion and increase recycling. Clearer labelling would also reduce contamination from ‘wish-cycling’ (putting material in the recycling because you hope, rather than know, it's recyclable). But at an industry level, innovation is key for all packaging types, and this will determine the industry leaders. Investing in research and development is therefore a good indicator of how producers are positioning themselves for growth.

And what about your Christmas waste? Enjoy the mince pies, read the packaging labels and try not to ‘wish-cycle’ in the New Year – it just puts pressure on recycling services.

  1. The Center for Biological Diversity aggregated trash, recycling, yard-waste and food-waste data from eight local governments across the country for the 2017, 2018 and 2019 calendar years (
  2. Steve Oulds, national commercial manager for Biffa MRFs quoted in a article, December 22, 2020.
  3. Value of global packaging demand 2017-2022 | StatistaOpens in new window
  4. in new window
  5. Source: Barclays Research, Our World in Data (2018), Geyer et al Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made (2017)
  6. A dataset of organic pollutants identified and quantified in recycled polyethylene pellets, Data in Brief, Volume 51, 2023, 109740, ISSN 2352-3409. (