Plastic or paper – the big debate! Unfortunately there is no black-or-white, simple yes-or-no answer to this question. Plastic can take hundreds of years to decompose and finds its way into our waterways and oceans in alarming quantities. We have all seen distressing images of the harm it causes to wildlife. One of the most widely used methods of trying to deal with this is to put biodegradable additives into plastic during manufacture.
However there is concern that this results in the material breaking down into smaller pieces, but not completely. This potentially causes even more pollution and harm to wildlife. Paper decomposes (usually) much quicker and is also much easier to recycle, but does use more energy to produce and transport. Plastic is manufactured from raw materials that are not easily replaceable. Trees can be replanted in increasing numbers to offset those that are used for paper production worldwide.
So let’s take a closer look at today’s big environmental debate. What’s better in the long run?
Reducing environmental impact
The key to reducing the environmental impact of any kind of packaging is to re-use it as much as possible. An Environment Agency study found that a paper bag needs to be re-used 3 times to have less overall impact than a single-use plastic bag. A plastic bag for life must be re-used 4 times. It should be noted that this study was in 2006 and improved efficiencies in paper manufacturing since then may have reduced the re-use requirement for paper.
In addition when paper does get disposed of, recycling is readily accessible. These days it is normal for paper and card to be separated from other household and business waste. Whilst paper requires more energy to produce than plastic, it is much more efficient and economical to recycle.
Making an informed choice
The fact is both the paper and polythene industries, and their industry associations, are working very hard to reduce their respective impacts on the environment. Plastic packaging will not go away as it has many unique benefits. These include reducing food waste, by example, by keeping it fresh for longer.
On the other hand, paper is generally more consumer friendly and more likely to be re-used or recycled. Plastic manufacturers are working hard to find alternative raw materials such as plant-based rather than fossil-based, whilst paper manufacturers are constantly striving to reduce energy and water usage.
The worst thing that can happen to either paper or plastic is for it to find its way into landfill. The very nature of landfill sites results in materials being protected from air, light, and water. This means that even degradable materials are prevented from decomposing.
Responsible producers and consumers of both materials are doing everything they can to ensure that recycling is promoted, facilitated and practised. At the moment this is easier with paper products than with plastic. This is a very good reason why consumers tend to view paper packaging more favourably, and something the plastics industry and government need to work hard to change.
Customer preference for plastic or paper?
Perhaps the most important consideration for a supplier or manufacturer when considering the question ‘plastic or paper’ is consumer perception. Due to the high visibility of plastic waste and publicity surrounding the amount of plastic finding its way into our oceans, consumer preference is unsurprisingly in favour of paper.
An independent report commissioned by Two Sides in March 2020, found that 63% (69% in the UK) of European consumers perceive paper and cardboard being better for the environment. It discovered that 66% would prefer their online purchases to be delivered in paper packaging. 70% of consumers asked are actively taking steps to reduce their use of plastic packaging. And 73% of consumers preferred their purchases to be delivered in properly fitted packaging. Getting the packaging size right means a reduction in need for excessive void-fill.
Where does this leave us?
So this all means there are pro’s and con’s on both sides. At the moment consumer preference is heavily in favour of paper-based packaging. Remember, what’s good for consumer perception is also good for your brand, so ignore it at your peril!
And if you need help with weighing up either paper or plastic for the best packaging solutions for your next project, please get in touch below.