Is Paper Packaging More Sustainable Than Plastic?
Which is the most sustainable packaging? | Image/Lisa Fotios via Pexels

It’s the Sophie’s choice that has plagued shoppers for decades: “Paper or plastic?” You hear this question every time you check out at the grocery store (if you haven’t brought your own reusable or sustainable shopping bags, that is). But which sustainable packaging is the best choice?

At first glance, it may seem like paper is a more eco-friendly packaging option than plastic. But it’s worth a closer look at how both paper packaging and plastic packaging are created, disposed of, and recycled in order to make a fully-informed decision. Here’s what you need to know about paper vs. plastic:

The sustainability of paper packaging isn’t as clear-cut as it may seem.

How Sustainable Is Paper Packaging?

Paper is made from trees and trees can be replanted. That seems like an open-and-shut case for paper packaging being more sustainable than plastic, right?

However, paper packaging isn’t an environmental hole-in-one. Here are some consequences of paper production to take into account:

  • Paper pulp is often bleached with chlorine. (Increasingly nowadays you can find paper products, like toilet paper and paper towels, that advertise they are “processed chlorine-free.”)
  • Paper mills that transform the pulp into the fiber that comprises paper uses energy and creates pollution.
  • Some trees filter air pollution and help improve air quality. Fewer trees result in lower air quality.
  • Plant and animal ecosystems are ruined by deforestation, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
  • The equipment used in deforestation creates pollution.
  • Deforestation can also contribute to human rights abuses and the promotion of social conflicts.

Is Paper Packaging Recyclable?

Yes, a lot of paper packaging is recyclable.

One ton of recycled fiber (the material that comprises paper) saves an average of 17 trees, according to a survey of research on recycled paper by Science Direct. Additionally, recycling paper uses as much as 70 percent less energy as making new paper.

That being said, recycling plants still uses energy and creates pollution, for the reasons listed above.

Is Paper Packaging More Sustainable Than Plastic?
Plastic can take hundreds of years to biodegrade. | Image/Nick Fewings via Unsplash

How Sustainable Is Plastic Packaging?

The largest market for plastics is in packaging, according to a 2017 study in the journal Science Advances. We have created over 8 billion metric tons of plastics since they began being produced on a mass scale during the 1950s. The United States creates more plastic packaging waste per capita than any other country, according to Earth Institute at Columbia University.

In theory, some plastics can be reused, like shopping bags or yogurt cups. But even if some plastics are reused, they need to be either thrown away or recycled eventually. Throwaway plastic packaging comprises 40 percent of all plastics created and most of it ends up in landfills, the Earth Institute says.

Once plastics end up in a landfill or in the environment, they may take hundreds of years to biodegrade, according to the National Ocean Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce. Biodegradation means the product degrades naturally over time, explains Public Goods, a company that sells sustainable products. Food, paper, and plastic all biodegrade at different rates; bacteria, algae, and fungi help the biodegradation along.

In addition to the pollution caused by throwing plastics in a landfill, making plastics also creates pollution. The “vast majority” of ingredients to make plastics are made by fossil fuels, or hydrocarbons, Science Advances says.

Can Plastics Be Recycled?

You can recycle plastic, but far less often than you’d like to think. More than 90 percent of plastics are not recycled, Greenpeace reports.

According to the Science Advances study, about 6,300 metric tons of plastic waste had been created as of 2015. Of that amount, 9 percent of plastic waste was recycled and 12 percent was incinerated (or burned in a process called pyrolysis). The remaining 79 percent of plastic waste ended up in landfills or in the environment.

Also, it’s worth noting that there are many, many different types of plastics, from soda bottles to drinking straws to take-out containers. The recyclability and degradability of each type of plastic widely vary.

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Around eight million metric tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year.

How Do Plastics Hurt the Environment?

Since it takes so long for plastics to biodegrade, they sit in landfills or in our environments.

However, probably the biggest hazard that plastics pose is to our oceans, lakes, and rivers. It’s impossible to know exactly how much plastic has gone into every water body across the world. Greenpeace estimates 12 million metric tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year. The organization vividly likened this nightmarish pollution to “plastic soup.”

Here are some of the ways that plastic harms the ocean:

  • Sealife can get entangled in plastics
  • Plastics can cover sea life habitats, such as coral reefs.
  • Microplastics (pieces of broken plastic smaller than 5 millimeters) are consumed by sea life.

Plastics hurt humans, too. The average American consumes 70,000 particles of microplastics every year, including microplastics we inhale, according to a 2019 study in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. It isn’t known what effect microplastics have on our health.

Is Paper Packaging More Sustainable Than Plastic?
Many plastics can’t be recycled at all. | Image/Nick Fewings via Unsplash

Why Is It Difficult to Recycle Plastics?

There’s actually a lot of difficulties in recycling plastics. Here are a few of the primary reasons why plastics are hard to recycle:

  • Some plastics can’t be recycled at all. According to National Geographic, there are two types of plastics: those that can be melted and re-molded, and those that can’t. Only the former category can be recycled.
  • Food residue can make some plastics unrecyclable. Food residue could get into recyclable plastic when it’s melted and ruin the integrity of the recycled product. That’s why it’s really, really important to wash your plastics before you put them in the recycling bin. Otherwise, plastics with food residue on them cannot be recycled. Recycling plants do wash recyclables but if the food residue is hard to remove — say, burnt cheese on a TV dinner tray — they might just chuck it in the trash, which ends up in the landfill.
  • Black plastics can be difficult to recycle. Recyclables are sorted by bouncing lights off of them and black colored plastics are not detected by the sorters. Some companies, such as Unilever, are reformulating their black plastics so they can be captured and sorted at recycling facilities.
  • Recycling plastics depends on the market demand for recycled materials. The bottom line is it’s about the bottom line: What gets recycled can come down to profits. As National Geographic put it: “[P]lacing [plastics] in the recycling bin won’t make a difference if you can’t make money off of them. If the demand isn’t there, or the quality of the materials post-use is incurably dirty, they end up in landfill or incinerators.”
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Reusable bags can help reduce single-use plastics.

How Can We Avoid Plastic Packaging?

The primary way to reduce our use of plastic packaging or avoid it altogether is to purchase fewer products that are packaged in plastic. These can be hard to find. The next step is to voice our concerns with the manufacturers. If consumers demand biodegradable options, the bottom line may become more in line with creating a more sustainable packaging industry.

“We can’t recycle our way out of this problem,” Judith Enck, founder of Beyond Plastics and a former regional Environmental Protection Agency official, told WBUR. “We have to buy less plastic, and we need American and other businesses to make less plastic. There are alternatives, and I want to emphasize even the most careful consumer has a hard time avoiding plastics.”

To transition ourselves off plastics, we as consumers have to change our mindset that not all products need to come in packaging. There are many sustainable fashion and beauty brands using fewer plastics; major consumer brands are thinking up new ways to use excess materials as renewable resources, such as biodegradable packaging; and even vegan fried chicken is coming using sustainable packaging in its buckets.

Will Plastics Be More Sustainable in the Future?

The science of biodegradable and compostable plastics is constantly evolving, and new solutions are coming to research testing and market trials all the time.

Biodegradable plastics on land may not biodegrade at the same rate in the ocean, according to the Marine Debris Program of the National Ocean Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce. In order to preserve the sea life ecosystem, it’s imperative that we create sustainable packaging—including plastics and paper—that will biodegrade in the ocean, reduce landfill waste and groundwater contamination, and offer consumers renewable, quality choices.