Environmental Impact of Plastic vs. Paper

As consumers become more engaged in the conversation surrounding plastic and the increasingly serious litter problems, especially in areas like Asia, the UK, and elsewhere, it is important that we understand the entire life cycle of all packaging including plastics, paper, cardboard, etc. 

According to The Future of Flexible Packaging to 2024 report, there is mounting public pressure on brand owners and retailers to reduce the environmental impact of packaging. Brand owners are responding to these concerns with a mission of not only reducing the amount of food waste, but more importantly, accelerate the move to a sustainable, resource-efficient circular economy

For many, it is believed that paper bags are more environmentally friendly than plastic bags because they are made from a renewable resource, can biodegrade, and are recyclable. However, scientific research shows just the opposite. Plastic bags outperform paper bags environmentally – on manufacturing, on reuse, and on solid waste volume and generation. Paper products take substantial amounts of energy to make, making paper and cardboard the third largest industry use of energy on the planet. In comparison to cardboard, plastic is lighter and more durable and less energy intensive to manufacture.

Conclusions from the 2005 Scottish Report states that “[A] paper bag has a more adverse impact than a plastic bag for most of the environmental issues considered. Areas where paper bags score particularly badly include water consumption, atmospheric acidification (which can have effects on human health, sensitive ecosystems, forest decline and acidification of lakes) and eutrophication of water bodies (which can lead to the growth of algae and depletion of oxygen). Paper bags are anywhere between six to ten times heavier than lightweight plastic carrier bags and, as such, require more transport and its associated costs. They would also take up more room in a landfill if they were not recycled.”

When you consider the entire life cycle of packaging, paper and cardboard represent far greater environmental impact than their plastic equivalents.  A recent ULS report comparing plastic and paper bags concluded that:

  1. Plastic bags generate 39% less greenhouse gas emissions than uncomposted paper bags and 68% less greenhouse gas emissions than composted paper bags. 
  2. Plastic bags consume less than 6% of the water needed to make paper bags. It takes 1,004 gallons of water to produce 1,000 paper bags and 58 gallons of water to produce 1,500 plastic bags.
  3. Plastic grocery bags consume 71% less energy during production than paper bags. Significantly, even though traditional disposable plastic bags are produced from fossil fuels, the total non-renewable energy consumed during their lifecycle is up to 36% less than the non-renewable energy consumed during the lifecycle of paper bags and up to 64% less than that consumed by biodegradable plastic bags.
  4. Using paper bags generates five times more solid waste than using plastic bags.
  5. After four or more uses, reusable plastic bags are superior to all types of disposable bags — paper, polyethylene, and compostable plastic, across all significant environmental indicators.

To learn more about the sustainability of plastic and flexible packaging, visit here

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