Paper or Plastic? Understanding the Sustainability of Each

Paper or plastic? The type of packaging we use is an all-important question, but we need to answer it in more situations than just the grocery store checkout line. Whether you’re a customer bagging your food at the supermarket, a small business owner packaging fragile items to send home with a shopper, or a major ecommerce retailer shipping products across the country, it’s necessary to examine the packaging materials you use. Analyzing how much protection they offer and the marketing capabilities they present is essential, and so too is understanding the degree to which paper and plastic packaging supplies are environmentally friendly.  

Sustainability in the Modern Age 

Now more than ever, consumers care about how they affect the environment around them. These eco-conscious shoppers choose to purchase from brands that feel the same way and show their investment in protecting our natural world and resources. Companies both large and small can no longer ignore the demand for sustainable products and packaging methods. This is why it’s so important to examine a variety of different packaging supplies to determine which option best suits your goods while minimizing environmental harm at the same time. To help you out, we’re breaking down the benefits and detriments of two incredibly popular materials that are found in nearly every store, warehouse, and home across the country – paper and plastic. 

The Perks of Paper 

Paper is often touted as being king of the hill in terms of sustainability and environmental friendliness. There are good reasons as to why it’s earned such impressive accolades, and you can easily leverage them to help your business. The most commonly lauded advantage of paper materials is that they are recyclable. After a customer is done with paper-based packaging supplies, they can simply toss them into the recycling bin, at which point the components can be processed into something new. This doesn’t mean that all shoppers will responsibly get rid of their unwanted paper, but this is where another major benefit comes into play. Should paper end up in a landfill, it only takes about 2-6 weeks to fully decompose. This also means that when paper goods are littered or left on the ground, they pose less risk to the wildlife that may try to consume them.  

Paper Has Its Downsides 

While paper is often marketed as the eco-conscious alternative to other packaging materials, it doesn’t come without problems. The actual manufacturing process for paper is highly energy and water intensive, which leads to large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions releasing into the Earth’s atmosphere. In fact, a 2011 study by the Northern Ireland Assembly found that it takes up to four times as much energy to produce a paper bag as it does a plastic bag. Higher greenhouse gas production is in part caused by the tree harvesting necessary for paper manufacturing, which leads to fewer carbon absorbing plants that help to stop the spread of emissions when these forests are not responsibly managed.  

The Plus Sides of Plastic 

We frequently hear about consumers trying to limit their plastic use, but the material brings with it a number of advantages that often get overlooked. In terms of usage, the material itself is durable and can be reused. Something interesting to note is that a paper bag must be reused at least three times in order for it to be more eco-conscious than a plastic bag, but it’s likely that the paper won’t be able to hold up to that kind of handling. The reason plastic is initially more environmentally friendly is that the manufacturing process for plastic involves significantly less energy than what is required to make paper products. Plastic also generally weighs less than its paper-based counterparts, making it less energy intensive to transport, as well as less expensive to ship. 

Plastic Has Its Detriments 

Most of us are aware of some of the serious problems presented by plastic waste, such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or even just the litter we see in our hometowns. Even though many plastics are recyclable, only about 16% of all global plastic is reprocessed into new material, while about 40% ends up in landfills and 25% is incinerated. Once these products end up in landfills, garbage patches, or get dumped on the side of the road, the consequences are dire. Plastic takes anywhere from 400 to 1,000 years to fully decompose. Not only does litter look incredibly unattractive, but it also often results in wildlife trying to eat the garbage, which can lead to serious harm or fatalities and cause immense losses among local animal populations.  

Making the Right Decision for Your Business 

It’s abundantly clear that paper and plastic both offer unique advantages, along with distinct harms. When making the call on what’s best for you as a maker, retailer, or even a consumer, you’ll need to evaluate which aspects are most important to you. Weighing sustainability against cost and effectiveness will help you determine whether paper or plastic is right for you and your products.