Paper or Plastic: Which is the Greener Option?

| | |

While plastic has been demonized for its damaging effect on the environment, most people feel more comfortable with paper-based products like paper bags and cardboard. When one weighs out all the factors that go into the manufacturing, use, and recycling of both materials, however, paper isn’t as green an option as people think.

Don’t get me wrong: plastics waste is a huge problem that needs to be reined in if we’re to preserve the planet we live on. Like we said before, however, a lot of the problem can be solved with how we use this valuable material. In more simple terms, we just need to reevaluate how we produce, use, and recycle plastic packaging. The same could be said about paper which, arguably, is just as destructive to the environment in its own way.

Sure, paper products and cardboard are made from trees and thus, considered a “greener” material on its own. Just because the end product might seem more eco-friendly does not automatically imply that the process of making it is. In fact, paper production causes 70 percent more air pollution than the production of plastic bags while also contributing 80 percent more greenhouse gases. And when it comes to resource use, paper bag production uses three times more water and four times as much energy than creating new plastic bags; even recycling paper bags is worse by consuming more fuel than just creating new ones. Indeed, making new paper bags produces 80 percent more solid waste than their plastic counterparts.

Though paper coming from trees might seem like a good thing on the surface (you know, trees and organic materials are “green”), paper production is a leading contributor to deforestation. When it comes to fighting our rising atmospheric carbon dioxide count, we kind of need trees to reabsorb some of that CO2 and process it back into oxygen.

So which material is better? As Rob Kaszubowski, CPP, a Senior Packaging Engineer at Chainalytics put it:

“The short answer is easy: neither! Paper and plastic bags each have different components that make them a drain on natural resources and a strain on the environment. When it really comes down to it, each option has its pros and cons. […] Both materials are recyclable, but the rate that consumers recycle them is minimal at best. Paper is degradable, whereas plastics take over 1,000 years to decompose. Yet, plastic bags require less energy to produce and recycle. The list goes on and on and teeters back and forth without really steering you to truly believe on is greater than the other.”

However, don’t despair. While current technology and consumer trends are largely to blame for our waste problems, changes that emphasize better trade, buying, and reuse practices can start making a big difference in the battle for sustainability.

Lowering Your Carbon Footprint… With Plastic?

Though the same could be said about changes to the paper production and recycling process, since we’re experts on plastics here at FP, we figured we’d stick to talking about what we’re good at. Indeed, we’re committed to finding more eco-friendly variants of plastic packaging, namely with our line of green biodegradable* films. Luckily, we’re not alone in the fight for a greener, less wasteful future. Riverford Organics of the United Kingdom, for example, has shifted gears from paper to plastic delivery boxes which, as company spokesman Guy Watson claims, could lower their company’s carbon footprint by 70 percent.

In an interview with The Guardian, Watson explains the change in thinking:

“Householders continue to see plastic as wicked and paper-based goods as benign. But when considered over the entire life of the packaging, paper and cardboard embody far more greenhouse gases than their plastic equivalents. Paper products take substantial amounts of energy to make. Crushing a tree down into small fibers, mixing the wood pulp into a slurry, and then passing the wet mass through huge rollers cannot be done without the use of enormous quantities of power. Making paper and cardboard is almost certainly the third largest industrial use of energy on the planet. By contrast, plastic is light, durable, and its manufacture is generally not particularly energy intensive — at least by comparison to paper.”

While the process of producing paper and cardboard is, indeed, very energy and resource intensive, Riverford’s goal was to at least keep its cardboard boxes out of landfills, offering refill and recycling services to its customers after delivery. Though the boxes were intended for use in ten delivery cycles before finally being retired, they usually lasted about four rounds before they fell apart. As Watson noted, “[since] these boxes are ‘free,’ the householder doesn’t look after them properly,” so the condition of the container deteriorated much more rapidly than expected.


Paper or Plastic: Which is the Greener Option?

Image source: Simple Ecology


Since it’s widely known that plastic, by comparison, doesn’t rot and is much more sturdy and water- and air-proof than cardboard, using plastic delivery boxes instead seemed like the wiser choice. Roughly 85 percent of Riverford’s packaging is made up of paper-based products though most negative comments on the company’s packaging refer to its plastics which only contribute about 8 percent to its carbon footprint. “It is the customer who is stopping [Riverford from] using long-lasting plastic for any form of packaging, not economics or carbon accounting,” as The Guardian article asserts.

Now, it’s important to note that the consumer isn’t the sole source of blame for inefficient materials use. While lack of proper recycling and efficiency education plays a large role, again a major contributor to our waste problem is pretty straightforward: we need to keep these materials out of landfills, at least for as long as possible. Therefore, it is imperative to find substitute materials that can either be reused (like sturdy reusable shopping bags you can take with you on your grocery outings) or have a lesser environmental impact (such as biodegradable or organic-based films) than current methods.

Indeed, sustainable packaging innovation will continue to solve this problem, but if we are truly to overcome the waste flooding our landfills and oceans, this effort must come from all sides of the economic spectrum: from business leaders and distributors to the consumers at home and the recycling plants. It isn’t that paper or plastic are particularly damning our environment. It is, however, our rampant and wanton misuse and waste of these materials that not only drains natural resources, but replaces them with literal garbage.

I don’t know about you, but I much prefer living in a world that isn’t filled with trash.

*49.28% biodegradation in 900 days under non-typical conditions; no evidence of further biodegradation.


Previous post Next post