Europeans prefer paper packaging


A new European market survey has shown that European consumers are increasingly aware of their packaging choices and that they prefer paper packaging, as this is more environmentally friendly

Massimiliano Luce

From Greta Thunberg’s “Fridays For Future” campaigns, which succeeded in mobilizing young people from all over the world, to the lessons given by the Coronavirus, stemming from the intimate bond between the environment and its destruction, an increasing “green” awareness is currently becoming a mass value spanning across generations. The word is widely recognized as our common house and, as such, it should be preserved with care and attention. This feeling is certainly praiseworthy, yet it will necessarily have to be cultivated and fulfilled through an growing number of tangible acts, within the framework of governmental policies that need to be implemented all over the world. The common challenge humanity is facing consists in turning words into real facts in a constant process that appears to be challenging, which is, however, not impossible.

The first good news is that it appears that the pathway towards environmental sustainability has been embarked with determination by our continent’s institutions, suffice it to think of the recent proposal by the European Commission of a Recovery Fund aimed at achieving a Green Deal as an essential strategy for economic growth. The second good news concerns the level of maturity of European citizens with regard to environmental issues, which they are showing to consider with increasing attention.

This is the framework of the survey commissioned by TwoSides to the independent market research company Toluna. The survey was conducted on 5,900 European consumers to try and trace and understand the preferences, perceptions and attitudes of consumers with regard to packaging. Results have shown that consumers are increasingly aware of their choices when it comes to packaging. National surveys were conducted in Italy (with interviews to 1,000 consumers), Austria (500), Denmark (350), Finland (350), France (1,000), Germany (1,000), Norway (350), Sweden (350) und United Kingdom (1,000).

«Today more than ever, packaging has attracted considerable attention in the pathway leading to the implementation of the circular economy», says Jonathan Tame, Managing Director at TwoSides Europe. «Consumers are increasingly aware of their packaging choices when they buy products and this, in turn, causes considerable pressure to be exercised on the supply chain activities, in particular in the retail sector. The culture of “doing, using, throwing” is slowly changing».


A hot topic

Two Sides is a global non-profit making initiative, which promotes the sustainability and appeal of the press, paper and paper packaging. Globally, Two Sides has over 600 members who are active along the entire supply chain of the press, paper and packaging, including forestry, pasta producers, paper, packaging, inks and chemicals, finishing, publication, printing, envelopes and post operators.

Interviewees were asked to choose their preferred packaging material (choosing between paper / cardboard, glass, metal and plastics) based on 15 environmental both practical and visual attributes. The European packaging market value was 195 billion euro in 2018, and it is estimated to reach 214 billion euro in 2023 (, 2019).

Packaging plays an extremely important way in purchasing decisions, as they convey fundamental information on the product and are used to preserve or improve its quality. Packaging can come in various forms, with the packaging industry being in constant evolution to meet customers’ needs..

Sustainability is a hot topic within the packaging industry, as packages are normally thrown away once the product has been bought and unpacked. As a consequence, consumers’ perceptions in terms of the environmental impact of the various packaging materials are essential to understand.


Written in black and white… in paper

So, when it comes to sustainability, 62% of Italian and European consumers prefer paper packaging. Among the first ten features, for which consumers prefer paper/cardboard packaging, 63% of them choose it because of its lowest environmental impact: this feature has been particularly expressed in the United Kingdom (69%), Denmark (69%) and Italy (64%); 57% of consumers choose it because it is easier to recycle (especially in the United Kingdom, Austria, Sweden and Norway, with all of these countries registering 61% for this attribute); 72% choose paper/paperboard because it can be composted at home: the highest percentage, in this case, was registered in Austria (77%), followed Italy (76%) and Germany (74%).

Glass packaging, instead, is consumers’ preferred choice because it offers the best protection for products (51%), with this argument being put forward especially in Italy (70%) and France (64%); it is reusable (55%), with this feature being registered especially in Austria (70%) and France (66%); finally, 41% of those interviewed prefer glass for the look and the touch, especially in France (50%) and Austria (47%).

As Tame points out, «the survey has shown that paper-based packaging are the preferred choice of consumers thanks to the environmentally friendly features of this material, like to possibility for them to be recycled and composted, as well as thanks to several other practical factors, like the possibility to store them. Glass becomes no. 1 choice when it comes to its possibility to be reused and protection of the product. As expected, plastics did not register high scores in any of the evaluation categories».

If we look at e-commerce, no change in the general trend has been registered: 66% of consumers prefer online ordered products, which are delivered in paper o plastic packaging. As regards shopping bags, too, Europeans have shown to prefer paper bags due to their low environmental impact in terms of recyclability (52%), compostability (47%) and possibility to produce them with renewable materials (43%).

A matter of label

Europe’s citizens are, furthermore, rather convincingly embracing “green” approaches to packaging. Tame goes on by saying that «the survey has also shown that European consumers are willing to modify their behaviour in favour of a more sustainable form of shopping: many of them are willing to spend more, if the products they buy are packaged with sustainable materials and almost half of the interviewees would rather avoid establishing contacts with resellers who do not prove that they are doing enough». This way, a virtuous circle is activated, where any player in the supply chain raises and enhances the environmental awareness of the other. «This kind of evolution or purchasing habits», points out Tame, «stresses the need for distribution to commit itself even more strongly towards the environment, and it highlights a generalized increase of the awareness in terms of environmental labels and certifications».

64% of the interviewees knows the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), and 55% of them knows the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC). Europeans consider the FSC slightly more important compared to the PEFC. The countries where consumers are more aware of the FSC are Italy (74%) and the United Kingdom (73%), while those who know PEFC more are Italy (67%), again, followed by France (60%). Norway is the country, where the FSC (51%) and PEFC (41%) labels are known the least.

The rings of the Mobius loop (which is guarantee of recyclability) are, in turn, the most widely recognized label in Europe, with an awareness index among consumers of 86%. Furthermore, consumers have assessed the Mobius symbol as the most important label ever. Finland (93%), Sweden (92%) and Italy (89%) are the countries, where the awareness of the symbol represented by the Mobius loop is the greatest. Environmental labels certainly represent an important factor in packaging, as they enable consumers to understand the environmental attributes of a product or its packaging, which might influence their purchasing decisions.

Consumers’ behaviours

On the other hand, the survey has confirmed that consumers’ awareness with regard to the impact of packaging on our planet is actually increasing. Interviewees were asked the extent to which the agree with a number of statements, and the results obtained are reassuring. First of all, in 70% of the cases respondents agree or fully agree with the statement: “I am carrying out actions to reduce my plastics packaging consumption”. The Italian data (82% summing up “I agree” and “I fully agree”) stands out, followed by the Austrian (72%) and French (70%) data.

Furthermore, in 44% of the cases respondents are “willing to spend more for a product if the latter is packaged with sustainable materials”. Also in this case, Italian consumers rank first (53%), followed by the Danes (44%).

In 46% of the cases, i.e. in one case out of two, respondents declare that they buy their products from “retailers, who are eliminating plastics from their packaging”. The European average value is, once again, kept high thanks to the Italians (56% of the sample), followed by the French (50%).

In 58% of the cases, respondents even believe that “the use of non-recyclable packaging should be discouraged with taxation”. This opinion is supported by consumers in several countries, the first of which is Italy (71%), followed by France and the United Kingdom (both with 62%).

Overall, results seem to suggest that consumers are becoming more aware of the impact caused by packaging on the environment, in particular when it comes to the use of disposable and non recyclable packaging. Unlike what might be commonly believed, it is especially the behaviours of Southern European consumers that are making the future of the European packaging market green.

Shopping bags

The distribution sector has been under pressure to reduce the use of throw-away plastic bags. This has led us focus on the shopping bags used after a purchase, even if retailers today offer solutions in plastics, paper and fabric: while cotton bags are generally appreciated because of their attractiveness and durability, paper bags are normally preferred when considering the impact on the environment, as they are recyclable: 58% in the United Kingdom, 56% in France, with a European average value of 52%; as the paper bag is compostable, preference for this kind of bag has been particularly expressed in France (57%), Sweden (52%), United Kingdom (50%) and Italy (49%), compared to a 47% European average; and as the paper bag is produced with renewable materials (49% in Austria, i.e. six percentage points above the European average of 43%).