In the midst of the packaging crisis, EPN launched to accelerate real solutions

by Anne Pernick

Two years ago now, though it seems much longer than that, I traveled from the USA to Germany for a sustainable packaging conference organized by denkhausbremen and Environmental Paper Network — International. Over 60 people joined me, mostly from across Europe and the UK and also from China and Canada. We came together in a brightly-lit room in Bremen. On the first day there were advocates, and business people, government representatives, and one intrepid interpreter. The conference had a paper focus but the presentations and discussions moved fluidly between the impacts of packaging made of paper, plastic, and all kinds of materials. By the end of a session that was exclusively for NGO advocates on the second day, there was strong agreement that we needed to rapidly address single-use products and packaging in particular. That was the only way to make any real difference in the crisis caused by the exploding consumption of packaging.

Some of my fellow conference-goers enjoying meeting in person in January of 2019. Photo by denkhausbremen.

When I returned home I saw this same fluid approach with the North American advocates I’d been working with to address wasteful paper consumption. More and more of them were also working on plastic, trying to stop the tidal wave of plastic pollution fouling communities and the ocean and all the other ills from their production and breakdown. One wisely warned us that as companies moved off single-use plastic to try to improve the sustainability of their packaging or conform to new laws, most were going to replace the plastic with paper without even considering the impact of their paper sourcing, or how the world’s shrinking forests were suddenly going to be able to cover a huge increase in paper packaging. Many companies and lawmakers were looking at a dire false solution on an incredible scale.

It was clear the EPN and other advocates needed to get the message out about the danger of false solutions and of throwaways of any kind of material. EPN started talking with campaigners working on paper, plastic, reuse, waste, and health about how we could collaborate on this message of what companies, lawmakers, and others needed to do. Advocates in these conversations also wanted to share the good news. More and more real, innovative solutions were coming online and were scalable. There were great leaps forward in reusable packaging in 2019, including iconic brands selling groceries in reusable containers and major fast food retailers announcing plans to pilot reusable cups.

Then coronavirus hit and single-use packaging snowballed. While there was and still is no evidence that throwaway packaging is safer than properly cleaned and sanitized reusable packaging, the plastic and paper industries

have used the pandemic to push for throwaway packaging for take out food and grocery shopping. Meanwhile, online shopping boomed with its vast dependence on disposable packaging. Most companies kept with business as usual or pursued false solutions. Getting the messages out about the need for real sustainability and the existence of real solutions was more important than ever. And that brings us to now.

Environmental Paper Network and our members are very excited to share, which builds on the work of many different organizations to address the crisis in both packaging and waste. is a new website and a communications campaign with three goals:

  • Educate and engage companies, lawmakers, advocates, and consumers on the need to get out of our current packaging crisis and move to packaging that offers long term sustainability.
  • Advance the real solutions that already exist, prioritizing reuse and no packaging and avoiding false solutions.
  • Connect people to the resources and work of the contributors to the site and the broader advocacy community so people can make corporate, policy, advocacy, and personal change at scale.

The new website lays out the environmental, health, and equity impacts of different kinds of packaging, offers guidance and resources for adopting real sustainable packaging solutions and avoiding false ones, and highlights examples of real solutions in action across a wide variety of products and services. EPN is especially grateful to contributors Canopy, Center for Environmental Health, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), Green America, Greenpeace, Product Stewardship Institute, and UPSTREAM for their ongoing work to solve the packaging crisis and their input on

It’s been a long road as recent events show real solutions in action and how much the world needs them. The problem is dire but there is so much good news. The solutions are here and scalable.

We need to solve the packaging crisis. With continued leadership from businesses, lawmakers, advocates, and individuals, we can. And with approaches we have already, and ones that are emerging, we can do it sustainably and equitably. Now it’s just a matter of whether we will. Environmental Paper Network launched to drive that answer toward “Yes.”

150+ orgs sharing a common vision of a forest, pulp & paper industry that contributes to a healthy, just & sustainable future for all life on earth.