Challenges facing the single-use fibre-based packaging

Globally increasing awareness and concern about the harmfulness of plastic waste for the environment and ecosystems have given a boost for the demand of fibre-based packaging materials. Fibre-based packaging offers many sustainable solutions for substituting plastic packaging, especially in single-use items. However, there are also challenges to overcome such as the potential threat of reusable food packaging and lacking recycling infrastructure, to name a few.


Burger King is during 2021 testing reusable containers in some of its restaurants in NYC, Portland and Tokyo for menu items such as hamburgers and drinks. Customers can choose a reusable packaging and for that a small deposit is charged. Also, McDonald’s has ongoing reusable coffee cup tests.

This could be a feasible alternative for dining in, but for take-out it seems to put a lot of effort on the customers to return the used containers. Should they not be returned, the amount of fossil-based litter increases. Additionally, in the life-cycle assessment, the cost of cleaning dishes should be taken into account, not to mention the increasing scarcity of freshwater in many regions of the world.

EU’s circularity targets support the material reuse over recyclability, but naturally the impact on the environment throughout the products’ life cycle is the key.  Also, a recent LCA study has shown that single-use fibre-based packaging is more environmentally friendly in many aspects compared to fossil-based reusable packaging.


What is surprising, is the currently lacking sorting of used food packaging in fast food restaurants, as typically all trash is placed into the same bin. Sometimes e.g. food leftovers in the packaging has been identified as a problem for recycling, but in some of my discussions with the market players this has not been identified as a major problem. Increased take-away consumption caused partly by the COVID-19 pandemic, but also by the change in consumer behavior, has rocketed the take-away food waste. This has pushed the recycling question higher up on the agenda.  I personally want to believe that consumers would today already be willing to separate their garbage if it is well organized.

Not only is the sorting in restaurants lacking, but consumers’ on-the-go consumption results in e.g. coffee cups being disposed in general recycling bins, from where they will typically end up in landfills, or in a positive scenario to a waste-to-energy plant.

Also, the recycling of plastic-lined fibre-based packaging is challenging due to different waste streams, thus the packaging may again end up in landfills. Despite the continuous efforts of the development of bio-based barrier coatings, the truly recyclable and compostable barrier coatings are still rare. Some countries allow a small proportion of plastic in the cartonboard recycling, easing the process. The question of contaminated packaging recycling needs implementable solutions!  On the other hand, promoting consumers to bring their personal reusable on-the-go cups could be one answer to reducing the amount of waste.


It remains to be seen how big of a foothold the reusable food packaging will gain in fast food restaurants. In my opinion, different packaging solutions can serve side-by-side in different situations. It is often about balancing in between different aspects; amount of waste vs. used resources and raw materials.  However, the overall amount of waste ending up in landfills should be reduced.

The development of a recycling infrastructure for packaging waste is a longer-term goal, which will be needed in order to more efficiently utilize raw materials and support circularity and by that a more sustainable future for our globe.

On the author: Eliisa Ranta, Director, is one of our packaging experts with 10+ years’ experience of the forest industry sector.

Vision Hunters provides strategic advisory services for the forest industry and energy sectors. We assist leadership teams in making the smartest strategic choices to improve the outcome of their company in the future. We are highly experienced and result oriented and have advised many of the leading companies in our industry.