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When Is Plastic Packaging More Sustainable than Paper?

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Plastic packaging has been viewed as a menace to the environment, so alternatives such as paper are being explored. However, there are cases where plastic is the more sustainable option.
Plastic packaging

When searching for more sustainable materials for your product packaging, a common sentiment is to avoid plastic as much as possible. Plastics have attained a bad reputation for being detrimental to the environment, as they take centuries to decompose and pollute both land and oceans. The commonly recommended solution is to look for alternatives to plastic—one of which is paper.

For years, there have been debates on whether paper is the better material for more sustainable packaging. There is a general belief that paper packaging is more environmentally friendly since it is derived from trees, a renewable source. 

However, the argument that paper is more sustainable than plastic is not entirely straightforward. If your brand  is looking for a more eco-friendly packaging solution, you may consider other aspects of the packaging’s life cycle to determine its overall environmental impact. This article explores the nuances of packaging and when using plastic may be more sustainable than paper.

Not All Plastics Are Bad

Plastics are generally viewed in a negative light. Single-use plastics are the main culprit of this. Since they are intended  to be discarded right after use, they have a devastating impact on oceans, wildlife, and people’s health. However, many people tend to overlook that other types of plastics are designed to be eco-friendly alternatives to single-use plastic. 

Alternatives such as bioplastics, biodegradable plastics, and compostable plastics are being explored as possible solutions to minimize the environmental impact of single-use plastics. Other than these, there are certain plastics that can still be recycled into new products.

It is also important to note why plastics are still being used today. Plastic packaging, in particular, offers sustainable benefits that people may not be aware of. For instance, plastic packaging is more flexible and lighter than glass and cardboard alternatives. This reduces transportation costs and the carbon emissions that come with them. 

Plastic packaging also maintains food quality and safety, as it protects the product from contaminants and harsh elements. It also reduces food waste by preserving food and increasing its shelf life. 

5 Times Plastic Is More Eco-Friendly Than Paper Packaging

  1. Plastics are more durable than paper.

Plastics offer great protection, safety, and durability. They are shatter-resistant, and plastic containers do not break easily when dropped or knocked over. Meanwhile, paper is not as durable, as it is more likely to split or tear, especially if the package gets wet.

Plastics also protect vulnerable products from contamination or damage caused by moisture, humidity, gases, insects, microorganisms, and light. When stacked on top of one other, products with plastic packaging often do not get damaged, making the transportation of these products easier.

The durability of plastic makes it an ideal primary packaging for sensitive products such as electronics and those that call for hygienic requirements, such as food, pharmaceuticals, and medical devices. Plastics also offer options for secure packaging, such as tamper-evident and child-resistant closures.

  1. It takes less energy to manufacture plastics than paper.

Plastics are more energy-efficient to produce. Manufacturing a paper bag takes more than four times as much energy than manufacturing a plastic bag. Furthermore, if all reusable packaging materials on the market were made from plastic, the energy saved would be enough to fuel 18 million personal cars.

Some argue that paper requires forests to be cut down and pulp to be produced, both of which take more energy than making a plastic bag from oil. The manufacturing process of paper also produces a higher concentration of toxic chemicals.

  1. Since they are more durable, plastic packaging is more reusable than paper packaging.

Reusing plastic containers is an effective and inexpensive way to reduce the environmental impact of packaging. Some plastic containers can be durable enough to be refilled and reused about 25 times before becoming damaged. 

Because of this durability, plastic packaging containers can be reused or repurposed in several ways. They can be used for home organization purposes or as leftover food storage, while plastic bottles can be refilled many times.

  1. Plastic packaging produces less carbon footprint during the transportation or shipment stage.

For every seven trucks that deliver paper bags, only one truck can deliver the same amount of plastic bags.

Since paper weighs more than plastic, its transportation requires more energy, adding to its carbon footprint. Meanwhile, plastic packaging will take up less space, which means lighter loads for trucks and planes and lower emissions.

  1. Plastics take less space in landfills than paper.

The material most frequently encountered in Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) landfills is paper and can sometimes account for more than 40% of the landfill’s contents. When paper ends up in landfills, its degradation rate slows and takes up more space than the same weight of plastic

Reusable plastic packages have longer life cycles, and a vast majority of these items are recyclable. In effect, plastic packages save the weight of 290,000 jumbo jets worth of waste in North America alone.

What’s The Best Choice For A More Sustainable Future?

The discourse about which one between plastics or paper is the more sustainable choice, one must consider the overall impact of choosing one over another. While plastic packaging can damage the environment, banning it and moving solely to paper packaging could have adverse effects—seeing as plastic packaging can still be the ideal choice for protecting essentials such as food and medical equipment. 

While the debate on plastics versus paper continues, plenty of other alternatives are emerging that can solve the environmental problems caused by packaging overall. Science and technology are looking for more ways to make both plastic and paper sustainable in the long run, and new solutions are bound to come to research testing and market trials over time.

The Most Sustainable Option Depends on You

In the end, neither material offers the perfect solution. Some of the environmental benefits of paper packaging can be offset during the manufacturing and shipping stages, making plastic the more sustainable option in these cases. Ultimately, choosing the right one depends on your application.

Since these packaging materials are unavoidable at present, the most sustainable decision is for you to better your recycling systems and keep up with the latest developments on eco-friendlier packaging solutions. Considering the nuances of their environmental impact, how you use these materials and find more sustainable options will make the greatest difference, not just the packaging itself. 

If you’re looking for the type of packaging that’s best for your products and messaging, consider talking to experts from Meyers, where professional printing solutions can help you achieve your sustainability goals.