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Paper and Fibre Packaging


Paper and Fibre-based Packaging

This guide addresses paper-based primary packaging solutions widely used for produce and food in formats such as: paperboard cartons, gable-top and aseptic cartons and molded fibre containers.

Consumers often view paper-based packaging as more environmentally-friendly compared to plastic packaging, with much of this attributed to paper’s recyclability, and rates of actual recycling, compared to that of plastic.  However, as this research notes, recyclable items — even when recycled — may have higher impacts due to factors such as material type and weight. For a more complete picture decision-makers must aim to consider the full life-cycle of any given product-packaging system.

A good place to start is sourcing.  Where most virgin plastic is derived from finite, fossil-based sources, paper-based packaging feedstock is renewable.  However, the extent to which renewable equates to sustainable depends heavily on resource management practices. For example, there are third-party chain-of-custody certification programs for sustainable forest management: Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) and Sustainability Forestry Initiative (SFI) are commonly seen on food packaging in North America, and the Programme for Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) is an umbrella organization recognizing different national programs.  Note that these certification programs have critics, including organizations like the Rainforest Action Network.  

Other sourcing considerations include the use of recycled material (see for example Recycled Paperboard Alliance), and the use of PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances).  For many years PFAS have been approved as grease-proofing agents in a relatively small sub-set of food packaging — such as microwave popcorn bags, take-out containers, and pet food bags — to prevent oil and grease from leaking.  Both the Government of Canada and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are pursuing steps to address these chemicals, and some organizations have already taken action.  For example, the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) certified compostable packaging standard prohibits the use of PFAS.

Manufacturing is another important consideration. For example, the pulp and paper industry (PPI), like the petrochemical industry (for plastics), uses high amounts of energy to generate products. As noted here, processes like chemical pulpingblack liquor evaporation, and drying require significant energy.  So, an important question to ask suppliers is: “What efforts are being made to minimize the environmental impacts of manufacturing processes?” 

 Having considered upstream impacts associated with sourcing and manufacturing one can then consider recyclability, as non-fiber elements can create challenges for recyclers. Many are listed in this AFPA Design Guide, and include: barriers, coatings, adhesives, metals, polymer windows, wet-strength resins, and pressure-sensitive labels.  Removing, limiting, or finding better alternatives for these elements is important to improve the quality of recycled material.


Paperboard applications vary widely, with a few in produce, and many in the broader food sector.  As noted, key considerations typically relate to sourcing, manufacturing impacts, and non-fiber elements that impact recyclability.


Cartons are used for many liquid products, in dairy and other food segments. Evidence indicates that cartons often offer reduced environmental impacts when compared with single-use alternatives.  This article shows how integrated product and packaging processes offer reduced carbon emissions and water usage, and this article highlights testing of alternatives to the aluminum layer, which is less than 5% of a package, but about one-third of GHG emissions.

Here is a map of carton recyclers which includes one Canadian-based recycler.  When recycled, the fibre component is often used in paper towels, tissues and office paper. The polyethylene and aluminum (polyAl) components are harder to recycle, though they can be incorporated into products such as flower pots, pallets, and ceiling/roofing tiles. 

Molded Fibre

Molded fibre is used for egg cartons, as well as takeout containers. As described here, molded fibre products are formed directly from a slurry phase, and typically rely on “wet end” additives, which may include PFAS, to improve oil and water barrier properties.

Sustainable Packaging Options & Uses Cases

Supporting Resources – Paper & Fibre specific

  • General Information
    • Recycled Paperboard Technical Association 2024
      Recycled Paperboard Technical Association

      The Recycled Paperboard Technical Association is a non-profit association that brings together the expertise of paper mills worldwide that manufacture products from at least 90 percent recovered fiber. RPTA is dedicated to the improvement of the recycled paperboard industry.

    • AFPA Design Guidance for Recyclability 2021
      American Forest & Paper Association

      Paper-based packaging is recyclable. Some non-fiber elements that are applied to paper-based packaging, like barrier coatings or adhesives, may create challenges for paper mills to recycle. With increased interest among consumer products companies to provide more recyclable packaging for their customers, the paper-based packaging industry recognizes the opportunity to bring clarity to how packaging gets recycled in paper mills and how various non-fiber elements affect the recyclability of paper-based packaging.

    • Carton Council “101” 2024
      Carton Council of Canada

      Cartons are a type of packaging for food and beverage products you can purchase at the store. They are easy to recognize and are available in two types—shelf-stable (also known as an aseptic carton) and refrigerated (also known as a gable top carton). Cartons are mainly made from paper in the form of paperboard, as well as thin layers of polyethylene (plastic). The shelf stable ones have also a thin layer of aluminum.

    • BC IC&I Packaging and Paper Products (PPP) Report 2023

      This a baseline report which helps to better understand the quantity, quality and composition of packaging diverted and disposed in the IC&I section.

    • Educating on the Differences Between PFAs and PPAs May 2023
      Flexible Packaging Association (FPA)

      This article highlights the differences between polymer processing aids (PPAs), such as fluoropolymers, from PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), which traditionally are used as grease-proof coatings in paper food packaging.