Unwrapping Packaging Water Risks

By Feng Hu 15 October, 2015

CWR's Hu unwraps the water risks associated with paper & plastic packaging materials

Paper packaging water use same as Beijing’s municipal use & discharges similar amount of wastewater as the coal
Plastic waste from bottled water to pesticide packaging is polluting water & soil due to the lack of recycling
Consumers are ready for environmentally friendly packaging; need more innovations from the private sector

We live a “packaged” lifestyle – from opening a carton of milk in the morning, to squeezing toothpaste before sleep – almost everything comes in a package.

Packaging is a USD400 bn market & over half from food-related use

Thanks to packaging, our food can be kept for longer and goods can withstand long-distance transportation. The market value of the entire packaging industry reached USD400 billion in 2012, over half of which came from food-related use.

Packaging comes in many different forms – materials used range from paper & paperboard, plastics, glass to metals such as aluminium. However, it has also developed to a point that it offers more than just protection of a product. With some of unique designs, packaging itself has become a reason why people buy a product.
Water bottles & polystyrene foam packaging waste left on a beach in Hong Kong

Every Chinese posted/received on average 10 courier packages a year

With the rise of consumerism and e-commerce, we generate huge amounts of packaging waste. Take packaging for express delivery as an example: in 2014 alone, nearly 14 billion courier packages were delivered across China, a 52% increase compared to the year before. This means that every Chinese posted/received on average 10 courier packages a year!

What’s worse is that modern logistics requires multiple layers of packaging for protection. The fact that packaging is part of the branding has also resulted in over-packaging of some consumer goods. We keep generating more and more packaging waste, but we are not doing a good job at either reducing or recycling them.

Lots of packaging waste, but not enough recycling

According to several Chinese studies[1], packaging waste accounts for over 30%-40% of China’s total municipal waste in terms of volume. However, not much of this is recycled. In 2013, 44.75% of paper & paperboard waste in China was recycled; while for plastic wastes in general, the rate was even lower at 23%. Given China’s resources constraints, these can certainly be improved as China has clearly indicated various policies related to a move towards a circular economy.

Packaging waste: over 30%-40% of China’s total municipal waste

Aside from insufficient recycling, the manufacturing of packaging materials uses a considerable amount of water, and is also contributing to a big share of wastewater discharge. Let’s take a closer look at water use & pollution in two most commonly used packaging materials – paper & plastics.

Paper packaging materials: thirsty & dirty

  • Water use to make paper packaging materials = Beijing’s municipal water use

In 2012, the total water use of manufacturing of paper packaging materials in China was 1.6 billion m3 – almost the same as Beijing’s municipal water use of over 20 million people in the same year (see chart below).

2012 Water Use of Paper Packaging Material Manufacturing vs. Beijing Municipal Water Use

This is calculated based on benchmarks provided in the national norm of water withdrawal of pulp, paper & paper board production issued in 2012. The norm includes four common types of paper packaging materials: corrugated paper, cardboard, white paper board and packaging/wrapping paper.

  • Wastewater discharge = the entire coal industry of the country

Paper & pulp has been named by the Chinese government as one of the most polluting industries. It has ranked No.1 in terms of wastewater discharge, accounting for 13.6% of total industrial wastewater in 2013. This is twice as much as that discharged by the coal industry. It is thus not surprising that the paper & pulp industry is one of the targeted industries for water pollution and faces a tighter timeline to clean up under the new Water Ten Plan.

Wastewater from paper & pulp is twice as much as that discharged by the coal industry…
Paper packaging accounts for around 60% of the total paper & pulp production.

Paper packaging materials account for around 60% of the total paper & pulp production (59.8% in 2012). Thus, despite the differences in production processes in manufacturing various types of paper products, it can be estimated that China’s paper packaging materials manufacturing very likely discharged more wastewater than the country’s entire coal industry.

As a result, we will see more stringent regulations to clean up polluting industries like paper & pulp. This could bring up the production cost and hence hopefully more incentives to recycle paper waste and switch to cleaner manufacturing.

Similar situation also exists for plastics….

Plastic packaging waste: polluting the water & soil

China Water Risk Report - Bottled Water In China-Boom Or Bust

  • Impacts of bottled water are greater than you think

Plastic is commonly used to make containers of liquids. Take bottled water for example: according to China Water Risk’s estimation, China’s bottled water production in 2012 required the amount of plastics which was equivalent to the size of Jinmao Tower in Shanghai (more in “China’s Bottled Water: Boom Or Bust?).

In addition, to produce one bottle of bottled water requires up to almost three additional bottles of water and a quarter bottle of oil (more in “Bottled Water: Drink Responsibly).

Without proper collection and recycling, many of the plastic bottles end up in the ocean, which is causing great damage to our oceanic ecosystem, not only in China but also globally (more in “Plastic Waste: The Vector For Change?).

  • Millions of pesticide packaging units to be collected

In 2013, Chinese farmers used in total 1.8 million tonnes of pesticides. This means at least dozens of millions of plastics packages. Many of the used packages are not properly collected and some even dumped in the fields or in rural water bodies.

New regulation requires pesticide producers to be responsible of recycling packaging waste

To deal with this, MEP issued the Management Measures on Pesticide Package Waste Recycling and Handling (tentative) on 14 April 2015. Under the new regulation, pesticide producers should either contract distributers to collect used packages, or set up their own recycling schemes to collect used packages directly from the farmers. Producers without proper recycling will have their production licenses disqualified.

Zhejiang province started piloting pesticide package recycling in 21 countries in 2014. Over the past year, a total 28.65 million units of packages were collected, which weighted in total 599 tonnes. The provincial government also issued a new policy, requiring all the pesticide packages to be centrally collected and recycled from 1 September 2015.

By subsidising prices of recycling, one district increased its pesticide bottle recycling to 80%

For instance, by setting subsidised prices for recycling, one district in Hangzhou (provincial capital) has increased its recycling rate of pesticide bottles to 80%. This shows that it is possible to encourage waste recycling through a scheme provided with financial incentives and effective management.

Moreover, another waste left in the field is mulch film made from plastics. Without proper handling of the film residue, it can lead to soil pollution. Technological solutions are available, such as BASF’s ecovio® biodegradable mulch film (more about its benefits on water & soil here).

Consumers are ready for more environmental friendly packaging

Tetra Pak, the world’s leading food processing and packing company, conducted a global environmental survey of experts and consumers. As shown in its latest 2015 survey:

  • 85% of the surveyed people had recycling practices and 78% ‘purchased product with environmentally sound packaging’; and
  • The biggest shift is seen in the percentage of people who looked for environmental information/labelling – rising from 39% in 2009 to 70% in 2005.

Similarly in China, consumer behaviours are also changing. According to China Carbon Forum’s new report, 73% of respondents surveyed in early 2015 were willing to pay extra money for green products, of which over 8% were willing to pay 10% more.

>70% buyers of bio-degradable products do so because of concern about the overall environmental quality

– Antoine Moussali, BD manager at Sineo Packaging

Antoine Moussali, BD manager at Sineo Packaging (a company supplying biodegradable packaging products), told me in an interview that over 70% of their clients who buy bio-degradable products do so because of their concern about the overall environmental quality. Although such products only contribute to a small share of the company’s total sales and are on average 25%-50% more expensive than regular packaging products, he still sees the potential for growth.

The future of packaging will be ……?

Consumer attitude is clearly changing; and once a change starts, it can spread fast. Given this global shift, the demand for more environmentally friendly packaging will increase. What is happening in Zhejiang also shows that, with strong political will and regulatory measures in place to encourage better waste management, recycling could be significantly improved.

However, as I wrote in my last article, the private sector is not acting as fast as this trend – packaging waste wasn’t even considered at the Milan Expo, a global event that is supposed to showcase sustainable solutions to solve resource constraints and mitigate adverse environmental impacts.

The most important is innovative packaging with less resource requirement & lower environmental impacts

More action is needed from the packaging and consumer goods producers as well as food retailers. The most important is innovation – to come up with new packaging designs, which use fewer materials and have lower adverse impacts on the environment. Recently, a London-based start-up firm ‘Ooho!’ announced a new biodegradeable water packaging material made from seaweed. People can literally eat the package if they want.
China Plastic Waste Recycling Rate 2009-2013
This ‘edible water package’ gives a good example on how our future packaging could look like. More such innovations should be welcomed. ‘New materials’ was one of the seven strategic emerging industries during 12FYP. It is also included in the ten new industries that China wants to develop according to its “Made in China 2025” plan. We look forward to Chinese companies to come up with innovative solutions.

Moreover, despite some local successes, stronger regulations and effective policies should be adopted at the national level to improve the waste recycling and management. Actions cannot wait, as the unwrapped packaging waste piles up everyday.

[1] https://www.ccchina.gov.cn/Detail.aspx?newsId=29375&TId=64;

Further Reading

  • Are You A Responsible Consumer? -With waste levels already sky high and set to grow, China Water Risk’s Dawn McGregor mulls over the challenges of being a responsible consumer from fashion to food to plastic. Whether as an individual or corporate, see what action you can take
  • Plastic Waste: The Vector For Change? – USD13billion is the annual cost of impact of plastic pollution to our oceans. Doug Woodring, founder of Ocean Recovery Alliance, shares challenges ahead and strategies for a plastics-free ocean
  • Biodegradable Films: Save Water & Soil -Plastic mulch films help save irrigation water but unfortunately, the plastic residue pollutes the soil. BASF’s Dirk Staerke expands on the damage caused and how biodegradable films can be a win-win solution for both water and soil
  • China’s Bottled Water: Boom Or Bust? – China’s bottled water industry stands at a fork in the road. Big expansion plans by the industry could be derailed by central policies to protect drinking water sources. Get ahead of these key risks
  • Bottled Water: Drink Responsibly – Know your bottled water – is it “fake water”? Is bottled water regulated? What is each bottle’s environmental footprint? Those “in the know” may be more inclined to go back to the tap. Hongqiao Liu walks you through how to drink responsibly
  • China Water Risk special report: “Bottled Water In China: Boom Or Bust?

Bottled Water In China - Boom Or Bust - Report Covers

  • Made in China 2025: Are You On The List? – How does the new Made in China 2025 Action Plan fit with other ‘Future China’ plans? Are the ten industries in Made in China 2025 the same as the Circular Economy Ten? Find out why which list matters
  • China’s Economy: Linear to Circular – China is the 3rd country globally to enact polices to move towards a circular economy. See how & why China needs to make this transition; which industries are affected, what is the role of industrial parks?
Feng Hu
Author: Feng Hu
Having previously led CWR’s work on water-nomics, Feng now sits on our advisory panel to help us push the conversation on integrating water considerations in planning sustainable transition and mobilising finance toward climate and water resilience. Feng currently works on ESG advisory at a regional financial institution. Prior to that, Feng worked as Sustainable Finance Research Manager APAC at V.E, part of Moody’s ESG Solutions. During his time at CWR, he initiated and led projects for CWR including the joint policy briefs with China’s Foreign Economic Cooperation Office of the Ministry of Environmental Protection on the water-nomics of the Yangtze River Economic Belt. Feng expanded the water-nomics conversation beyond China by co-authoring CWR’s seminal report “No Water No Growth – Does Asia Have Enough Water To Develop?”. He has given talks on water-nomics and other water issues at international conferences, academic symposiums, corporate trainings and investor forums. Previously, Feng also sat on the Technical Working Group of the Initiative for Climate Action Transparency (ICAT) and worked as a senior carbon auditor on various types of climate change mitigation projects across Asia and Africa. Feng holds two MSc degrees – one in Finance (Economic Policy) from SOAS University of London and the other in Sustainable Resource Management from Technical University of Munich – and a BSc degree in Environmental Science from Zhejiang University.
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