Is paper or plastic more sustainable for recyclable flexible packaging in the UK in 2023?

When you’re looking for flexible packaging options in the UK, you may be wondering whether to choose paper or plastic.   Both have their benefits and drawbacks, but when it comes to the questions of sustainability, which option is the best for you?   This is a big topic, but in this article, you can start to learn more about the environmental impact of paper and plastic recyclable flexible packaging, and explore some of the factors you should consider when making your decision.

Environmental Impact of Recyclable Paper Flexible Packaging

Paper is a renewable resource that is recyclable and biodegradable, making it an attractive option for those looking for sustainable packaging.  When compared to plastic, paper is oil-free and renewable. Additionally, paper is biodegradable, which means it will break down naturally over time, unlike plastic which can take hundreds of years to degrade in the environment.  However, many recyclable paper films with coatings may not be compostable or biodegradable.

Recycling paper is also easier than recycling plastic. The UK has an established paper recycling infrastructure, which means that a significant amount of paper waste can be recycled and reused. This not only reduces the amount of waste sent to landfills but also conserves natural resources by using recycled materials instead of new ones.  Recyclable paper films with coatings of no more than 10% are considered kerbside recyclable under OPRL guidelines.

However, it’s important to note that not all paper is created equal when it comes to sustainability. Most recyclable paper flexible packaging films are produced using virgin pulp, which involves harvesting trees and can have a significant impact on natural ecosystems.  Therefore, it is important to use papers sourced from sustainability managed forests, using schemes such as FSC or PEFC certified papers. Additionally, the manufacturing process for paper can require large amounts of water and energy and can have a significant carbon footprint.  However, the good news is that some innovative paper mills have significantly reduced the carbon footprint of their production.

Environmental Impact of Recyclable Plastic Flexible Packaging

Plastic packaging is a popular choice for many industries due to its shelf-life properties, cost efficiency, durability, and versatility. However, plastic has a significant impact on the environment, especially when it comes to single-use packaging. Plastic can take hundreds of years to degrade in the environment, and when it does, it breaks down into smaller pieces called microplastics. These microplastics can be ingested by animals, causing harm to wildlife, and potentially entering the food chain.

While flexible plastics can be recycled, the process is typically more challenging than recycling paper. The light-weight nature of many flexible plastic packs has contributed to making it difficult to meaningfully recycle plastic flexibles.  However infrastructure is developing fast, and new recycling technologies are being introduced which is significantly improving the ability to recycle plastic flexibles.  Currently recyclable flexible plastics in the UK market are polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP).  These are not widely recycled kerbside through council collections yet, however they are considered recyclable front-of-store at larger retailers under OPRL guidelines.

Plastic production also requires fossil fuels, which contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and are not renewable in the way the paper is.  However, the production of plastics in some cases is very energy efficient, helping to reduce the carbon footprint of the plastic films.


When it comes to choosing between paper and plastic packaging, there is no easy answer. Both have their benefits and drawbacks, and the decision ultimately depends on the specific needs of your business.  The pros and cons of recyclable flexible plastic packaging and recyclable paper packaging you can read about in more detail in other articles.

However, when considering the question of sustainability alone, paper packaging has some strong benefits. Paper is a renewable resource that can be recycled and biodegrades more easily than plastic. However, it’s important to note that not all paper is created equal, and it can help minimise your environmental impact by choosing your paper well. However, for many applications recyclable plastic packaging may be the more viable recyclable flexible packaging solution, and some recyclable plastic films can be relatively low carbon footprint and can be widely recycled front-of-store at large supermarkets in the UK.

As a packaging buyer, it’s important for you to weigh the pros and cons of each option and consider the specific needs of your business. While cost and product protection are important considerations, it’s becoming increasingly important for you to prioritize sustainability goals and the long-term environmental impact of your packaging choices.

It is beneficial to choose an innovative flexible packaging partner who has experience and capabilities in both paper and plastic flexible packaging, so that they can help you work through the needs of your product and brand in an empathetic and unbiased way.  One of our packaging specialists would be glad to help if you have any further questions.