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The Truth About Paper vs Plastic (and Bio-Plastic)

We hear it time and again from the amazing businesses we work with, all who have a strong eco commitment -- “We are banishing plastic from our business and our lives”. And we get it. The very thought of a plastic bag - made with fossil fuels, used just once, then ending up in the Great Pacific Garbage patch, to decompose over the course of 1000 years, getting stuck in the bellies of seagull and fish - is more than enough to make you swear plastic off forever. We’re with you and deeply respect your passion and commitment!

But is plastic truly evil? Is paper more ecofriendly than plastic? Could bio-plastic be the answer to some of this? Before we began running EcoEnclose, our answers to these questions would have been yes, yes and yes.

But, as we’ve learned more about sustainability and the impact of different materials, we’ve been surprised to find that we may have been buying into some eco-myths and that there are pros and cons of plastic, just as there are pros and cons of paper. We need to be much more nuanced here at EcoEnclose and in our own homes and lives about these different questions.

How We Evaluate Materials
For us, the ultimate goal of sustainability is for humans to exist in ways that strengthen and regenerate the planet for all future generations. Sustainability is therefore not simple. It can’t just be boiled down to end-of-life or where materials end up once they are consumed.

Instead, we consider the following 360-degree questions to get at more of a life cycle understanding of the footprint of different materials:
  • Can recycled content be used easily for these materials? Are the raw materials for that material renewable or non-renewable?
  • What are the resource implications of manufacturing of the raw material?
  • How much energy is needed, water is consumed, and pollution is created through the manufacturing process? What are the energy and resource requirements of distributing and storing the raw materials?
  • What are the end-of-life options for the raw materials? How easily can they be recycled back into themselves?
life cycle analysis of paper versus plastic

The following chart provides a very high level (and admittedly oversimplified because of how complex these topics are) comparison of three common ecommerce packaging materials. We have given each material an overarching rating of “Good,” “Moderate” or “Poor” to indicate how well each material typically embodies each criteria. The chart does not aim to provide a perfect number representing the carbon footprint of a material, because that is just not feasible given the many factors that influence this. Each piece of paper has a different carbon footprint depending on what forest its raw materials came from to the paper mill where it was pulped to how much recycled content went into it. Instead, the chart and this piece aims to help readers understand the dimensions by which to assess a material and packaging solution and the importance of going beyond just one dimension - such as end-of-life.

Plastic Paper Bio-Plastic
Renewable, sustainably grown material Poor Moderate Moderate
Ability to use recycled content Moderate Good Poor
Energy, resource and pollution from manufacturing Moderate Poor Moderate
End-of-life, ability and likelihood of being recycled or disposed of properly Moderate Good Poor
Read on to learn why we’ve classified different materials as we have, and better understand the facts, myths and nuances about these different materials.

Renewable, sustainably grown material
Plastic is made directly from fossil fuels, most definitely a nonrenewable resource. It is estimated that 4% of the world’s oil production is used as a feedstock to make plastics. We have therefore categorized plastic as “poor” when it comes to renewable, sustainably grown material. It is, however, important to understand that a lot of plastic, LDPE #4 or “plastic bags” in particular, is made from ethane, a byproduct of natural gas production. Ethane would be typically burned off to lower the BTU value of the gas so that it doesn’t burn too hot when used as fuel in our homes and businesses. The production of plastic in this way actually “captures” this ethane instead of having it burned and released into the atmosphere.

This is not to say that virgin plastic is amazing and we should all celebrate it as a green innovation! Simply that, as long as we are heating our homes and running our stoves with some degree of nonrenewable resources, such as natural gas, there are some efficiencies related to the raw materials extraction associated with plastic.

Paper is typically made from trees, though very occasionally (thus far, especially in the US) from materials like straw or hemp. Trees are a renewable resource, which is “good.” However, renewable isn’t a great thing if the paper is coming from global deforestation - one of the major contributors to climate change and loss of wildlife habitat. Every year, 13 million hectares of forest disappear (although afforestation adds another eight back), and the World Resources Institute (WRI) estimates that only about 22 percent of the world’s old growth forests remain intact.

Thankfully, paper manufactured in the US is typically not to blame for most of this. WRI estimates that agricultural expansion (i.e. the need to produce more and more palm oil) accounts for probably 80 percent or more of tropical deforestation. Most paper in the world comes “production forests” - fast growing wood growing operations with harvesting cycles of 5-10 years. At best, these production forests have a positive impact, as seedlings and growing trees capture carbon more effectively than the agricultural land these operations may have replaced. At a minimum, this production approach means wood products can be created without any need to log in old forests. Certifications such as Forest Stewardship Council help users seek out virgin paper made from trees that have been grown in positive ways. We have categorized paper as “moderate” for renewable, sustainably grown material because while wood for paper can be a net positive renewable resource, the logging and paper industry has not yet reached a point in which net positive, certified (such as FSC certified) tree forestry and logging is the standard.

Bioplastics are plastics made from plants, including corn, sugar cane and algae.
bioplastic versus plastic

In the US, Cargill’s NatureWorks is the largest producer of bioplastics and produces their material from corn. Corn kernels are processed and milled to extract the dextrose (a type of sugar) from their starch. Dextrose is fermented into lactic acid, and converted into lactide. The lactide is “polymerized” to make long-chain molecules of polylactide acid (PLA). PLA looks and behaves like polyethylene and polypropylene and is now widely used for food containers. Note that though there is a lot of talk recently about bio-plastics, the concept is not necessarily a new one. In fact, the world’s first plastics were plant based. “Cellophane,” once commonly used for food packaging until petrochemical plastics rose in popularity, is made from cellulose, the structural component of plants.

Okay, so US bioplastics are made from fast growing corn - so it must be a great, renewable resource, right? Not so fast. Downsides do exist. Corn for bioplastics is grown on land that could be used to grow food. In fact, in 2014, almost a quarter of US grain production was for biofuels and bioplastics production. Taking agricultural land out of production could cause a significant rise in food prices that would hit poorest people hardest worldwide. Additionally, growing crops to make bioplastics comes with the usual environmental impacts of intensive agriculture, including greenhouse emissions from the petroleum needed to fuel farm machinery, and water pollution caused by runoff from land where fertilizers are used in industrial quantities. In some cases, these indirect impacts from "growing" bioplastics are greater than if we simply made plastics from petroleum in the first place. Further, some bioplastics, such as NatureWork’s PLA, are typically made from genetically modified corn. Genetically modified corn has been specifically designed to be able to endure an onslaught of chemical pesticides without the crop being destroyed. This means that genetically modified corn production fields are often generating more chemical runoff and health hazards for workers and their communities than non-GMO corn is creating.

We have categorized bio-plastic as “moderate” for renewable, sustainably grown material because while corn for plastic can be a net neutral or even positive renewable resource, we don’t yet see this to be true, especially in the US where corn production has so many negative consequences.

We do follow and research new innovations related to bioplastics, and look forward to an era when less resource intensive inputs (such as algae) that do not displace agricultural land become the key drivers of bio plastic.

Ability to use recycled content
Almost all plastics can be recycled into something. Historically, plastics were not turned back into their original materials. Plastic bottles become materials for park benches, Styrofoam becomes picture frames, plastic bags become composite lumber. However, new innovations are making it more common for plastic to be recycled back into its original use. For example, CarbonLITE Industries recycles more than 2 billion PET bottles into food-grade post-consumer PET and is one of the largest producers of food-grade recycled PET in the world. EcoEnclose’s recycled poly mailers (made with LDPE #4 plastic) are made from film and plastic bags (also LDPE #4). Recycling plastic from its original use and form, back into itself (versus downcycling plastic) is a newer phenomenon because the process is difficult and therefore requires investment and innovation, and because historically, recycling rates for plastic have been low, meaning that a steady supply of recycled plastic was not available.

When recycled, plastic is melted and formed back into pellets and then used again to create raw materials like film and mailers through a process of heat-based molding or blowing. Because recycled plastic have contamination and ink, recycled plastic feedstock is lower quality and less consistent than virgin plastic pellets. Unstable resin can stop and break machines because its melting point or reaction to heat is too unpredictable. This can lead to wasted resources going into the creation of unusable goods. As such, manufacturers of recycled plastic material must find the right blend of virgin, post-consumer and post-industrial plastic for their particular machines and end use cases.

The world of recycled plastics is evolving and advancing rapidly. The more consumers demand recycled content in their plastic, the more companies will work to meet this need. We have rated plastic as “moderate” on ability to use recycled content because on one hand this is a feasible technology and progressing rapidly. On the other hand, it is currently difficult for manufacturers to achieve high levels of recycled content, and extremely challenging to achieve very high levels of post-consumer recycled content in particular.

In contrast, paper is fairly easy to recycle back into paper. It is a non-synthetic material whose manufacturing process does not rely on chemical reactions. It can therefore be repulped and put back into the paper mill / manufacturing supply chain fairly readily. It is also more forgiving of contaminations that might occur in the post-consumer waste stream and, as such, it is much easier to make 90% and even 100% post consumer recycled paper than it is to make 100% post consumer recycled plastic. We have therefore rated paper as “good” on ability to use recycled content.

Finally, to date, the world of bio-plastics is almost entirely driven by virgin materials. A very small set of bio-plastics can be put back into the recycling stream, but when they do, they are treated as “traditional” plastic. We have rated bio-plastic as “poor” on ability to use recycled content because currently, there is little investment in this space. If bio-plastics become more common, we are hopeful that bio-plastic manufacturers invest in the ability to use recycled content, and recycling sorting facilities (MRFs) have the capabilities to accept and sort bio-plastics.

Energy, resource and pollution from manufacturing
The manufacturing of plastics is energy intensive, with 4% of the world’s oil production going into just the processing of plastic. However, the plastic manufacturing process itself actually requires less energy than paper and even bio-plastic.

Making paper from trees is dirty work. At a paper mill, trees are de-barked, cut into wood chips, and then fed into large pressure boilers called digesters. This reduces the wood chippings to an oatmeal-like pulp, which when extracted from the digester is one part fiber to 200 parts water. The pulp is then deposited onto a high-speed, mesh screen loop, which removes most of the water content and leaves a thin layer of raw paper. This raw paper is pressed and heated in a series of drying cylinders where any remaining traces of moisture are removed. Finally, the paper is treated with a starch solution that seals the surface and helps avoid excessive ink absorption during printing. 20% of toxic waste in the air in the US is due to the pulp and paper industry, and wastewater pollution is a very big problem as manufacturing discharges contain pollutants such as lignin, chlorates, transition metals, nitrogen, phosphorus to name just a few of the toxins that should not be spreading into our rivers and oceans.

Boustead Consulting & Associates Ltd. conducted a study comparing traditional plastic grocery bags (also made with LDPE #4, similar to poly mailers) to paper bags and found that manufacturing 1,000 paper bags requires 3.4 times more energy than traditional plastic, and manufacturing compostable plastic bags requires 2.7 times more energy than traditional plastic.

paper versus plastic

Given this research, we have given paper a “poor” rating when it comes to energy, resource and pollution from manufacturing.

It is important to note that a paper mill that has a comprehensive water reuse system, utilizes wind and solar energy, scrubs air emissions and water before release, offsets its carbon emissions, and obtains reputable certifications to prove these action can drastically reduce its negative impact. In fact, a great paper mill can actually have a positive impact, such as taking in dirty water from a river and releasing clean water.

We have given both plastic and bio-plastic a relative “moderate” rating for this criteria; however, studies (including both the one cited above and one conducted by the University of Pittsburgh) have shown that the manufacturing alone of bio-plastics is more energy intensive than traditional plastics.

Energy, resource and pollution of shipping and storage
Distribution and storage of all types of both traditional and bio-based plastic is typically more efficient than for paper. Plastic is lighter and thinner.

For example, EcoEnclose stocks recycled poly mailers and recycled kraft mailers. While none of them are exactly the same size, we have comparable ones, such as a 14.5"x19” poly mailer and a 12.5"x19” kraft mailer. The kraft mailer is slightly smaller than the poly mailer, but the poly outperforms the kraft in terms of shipping efficiency.

A single poly mailer of this size weighs 0.8 oz. versus the comparable kraft mailer, which weighs in at 2.2 oz. A case of 250 poly mailers is 768 cubic inches (16”x12”x4”), while a case of 200 kraft mailers is 2990 cubic inches (23”x13”x10”). A single 48”x48” pallet can hold 30,000 poly mailers versus just 4,800 kraft mailers.

The significantly lighter and thinner poly bags are therefore more energy efficient to ship across the entire supply chain, including to your business. They also require significantly less energy and space to store than the equivalent number of paper-based mailers.

Thus, we have given paper a “poor” rating on energy, resource and pollution of shipping and storage and plastic (both traditional and bio-based plastic) a “good” rating.

End of life, ability and likelihood of being recycled or disposed of properly
Plastic bags or poly mailers (#4 LDPE) can and should be recycled; however, this is not an easy process for consumers. Unfortunately, most single stream, curbside recycling programs are unable to accept LDPE #4. As of yet, the equipment used by the facilities that sort your single-stream recycling bins (known as MRFs) cannot handle flexible, shapeless plastic. The bags get caught on the wheels and gears of these machines. causing costly shut downs. To recycle plastic bags, most Americans must take them to a designated drop-off site, which most grocery stores and major retailers are set up for.

Plastic recycling rates in general are poor in the US. According to the EPA, only 9.5% of plastic material generated in the U.S. Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) stream was recycled in 2014, and it is estimated that only 3% of plastic bags are recycled. Additionally, while plastic bags CAN be recycled back into plastic bags, this does not always happen. They often come back as composite materials, such as Trex. While this is better than sending plastic to landfills, it is not as beneficial to the environment as materials that are recycled “back into themselves.” The positive trends here are that most Americans have some access to plastic bag and poly mailer recycling and that recycling rates are rising. We hope trends towards increased recycling rates of plastic will happen when (1) MRFs adopt equipment that can sort plastic bags in single-stream recycling and (2) there is increased demand for recycled plastic, and specifically #4 LDPE plastic.

So what happens if traditional plastic does not end up in the recycling stream? Plastic grocery bags, and other lightweight “on the go” plastics (such as snack bags and candy wrappers) can end up in the ocean either because they are thrown on the ground as litter, or because they are shaped in a way that “catches the wind” so they can be picked up from garbage bins and float away. Plastic ecommerce packaging - namely poly mailers - have two advantages over grocery bags and candy wrappers. First, they are thicker and heavier than the grocery bags or candy wrappers, and default to laying flat; therefore, they do not get picked up by the wind. Second, they are received and used at a home or office, and therefore are very unlikely to be tossed on a sidewalk as litter. As such, poly mailers that aren’t properly recycled will end up in the landfill (a bad outcome), and not the ocean (a much worse outcome).

Now let’s consider the impact of plastic packaging in the landfill. We hate landfills for a few reasons. Mainly because every item sent to a landfill is done, and cannot be used again. This is a complete waste of all of the natural resources and human energy that went into its development. Every item in the landfill is a missed opportunity to give new life to something. “Landfill culture” also wreaks havoc. The idea that you can so easily dispose of something means people never truly have to come to grips with what they buy, use and throw away every day.

Beyond this, there are two tangible concerns related to landfills. One is that we are running out of landfill space. Bryan Staley, PhD, PE, president and chief executive officer of the Environmental Research & Education Foundation (EREF) believes we have 60 years of capacity left in our nation’s current landfill facilities. However, some states are facing more dire shortages. Seven states will run out of landfill space within five years and are therefore shipping trash to faraway states - a costly and energy intensive process. It is likely, however, that as space diminishes, landfills will eventually become waste-to-energy plants, which accounts for just 13% of US waste management, but is far more common across Europe where land is at a premium.

The second issue is that landfills are major GHG emitters and water polluters. When waste is first deposited in a landfill, it undergoes an aerobic (with oxygen) decomposition stage when little methane is generated. Then, typically within less than 1 year, anaerobic conditions are established and methane-producing bacteria begin to decompose the waste. This decomposition happens very gradually, but still generates landfill gas (LFG), a natural byproduct of the decomposition of organic material in landfills. LFG is composed of roughly 50 percent methane (the primary component of natural gas), 50 percent carbon dioxide (CO2) and a small amount of non-methane organic compounds. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas 28 to 36 times more effective than CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere over a 100-year period. Municipal solid waste (MSW) landfills are the third-largest source of human-related methane (after fossil fuel production and livestock farming) emissions in the United States, accounting for approximately 15.4 percent of these emissions in 2015. Note that this does not have to be the case. If used effectively, LFG can be a great source of energy. Today, 35% of waste ends up at landfills that capture methane for energy and the EPA is working to get more landfills in this camp.

Back to materials and plastic in particular. Today, with the US infrastructure as it is, if packaging unfortunately gets to a landfill rather than to a recycling or composting facility, we would actually prefer for it to NOT be biodegradable, because we see these LFG emissions as the most important negative impact of landfills. Non biodegradable materials in a landfill are fairly benign given how gradually they degrade, while materials that biodegrade will more readily (though still slowly) undergo anaerobic digestion that creates methane. We recognize that these are important points to reconsider as more and more US landfills capture and use these emissions for energy, or as more and more landfills move to WTE plants.

Given the myriad of considerations when it comes to end of life for plastic ecommerce packaging, we have rated it as “moderate.” It can be recycled, and more and more, it can be recycled back into itself. Additionally, the majority of people currently have access to plastic recycling, though not all have access to curbside recycling. On the other hand, rates of recycling are extremely low, though the trend is rising.

Paper, on the other hand, is a bit of an end-of-life superhero. According to the EPA, more than 64 percent of the paper and paperboard generated as MSW was recycled in 2015. The CPA (Corrugated Packaging Alliance) states that over 90% of corrugated / cardboard is currently recycled. Paper can be recycled many times before its fibers become so short that it cannot be remade into any new paper product. It can also be composted, and it should be composted if there is any food or grease on it. If it happens to end up as litter (again, not common for ecommerce packaging), it would biodegrade quickly and cause far less harm to ocean life.

Its main downside is that if paper-based packaging ends up in the landfill, (1) it is thicker and therefore takes more room than plastic counterparts and (2) it is likely to biodegrade - slowly but more rapidly than plastic - and generate landfill gas (LFG) emissions that are such a major concern of landfills. All in all, we have given paper a “good” rating when it comes to end of life, ability and likelihood of being recycled or disposed of properly.

Finally, let’s consider bio-plastics. Bioplastics have a few end of life paths. Something can be:
  • Bio-based and recyclable, like Coca-Cola’s new HDPE PlantBottle. This is not common, particularly with respect to flexible plastic that is used for ecommerce.
  • Biodegradable and compostable, with a clear label that indicates it as such - either “Certified Compostable” or a #7 PLA (the PLA MUST be in the recycle sign for this to be the case) which confusingly is NOT recyclable but is compostable in industrial settings.
  • Claiming to be biodegradable through an additive that simply breaks plastic down into smaller pellets. These items are ideally recyclable (which you would know if they have a recycle symbol and number on them) and at worst landfill bound.
  • Claiming to be biodegradable with no proof or science behind them. Again, these items are ideally recyclable (which you would know if they have a recycle symbol and number on them) and at worse landfill bound.
We see three important challenges related to biodegradable items that are compostable. Typically, unless they are certified for home compost, compostable synthetic material (e.g. bio-plastics such as PLA “7”) cannot just be tossed in your home compost bin or in the dirt. These generally require microorganisms inside a professionally managed compost facility to consume them within a relatively short period of time. Unfortunately, less than 1% of the country has access to curbside collection of mixed compost, which, unlike standard composting facilities that only accept yard trimmings, are centers that accept food scraps, bio-plastics, paper, etc.

Second, compostable bioplastics are screwing up the recycling stream. PLA #7 is an example of this. Many people send their PLA 7 (bio-based, compostable plastic) to the recycling facility. PLA 7 is not recyclable. At the MRF, this plastic will either be sorted out and send to the landfill, or be mistaken for “normal” plastic during the sorting process. If a MRF sells a bale of plastic with too much PLA contamination in it, it could be rejected on delivery to its buyer, and the entire bale would be landfill bound.

Third, while bioplastics are compostable, they don’t necessarily lead to great compost. Composting facilities that cater to organic farmers can’t accept these items. Bioplastics go through a process of polymerization, so they are “synthetic materials” and therefore don’t meet the USDA’s National Organic Program’s standards. Lindsay Fernandez-Salvador, a program manager at the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI), which determines whether specific agricultural input products, such as compost, can be certified organic states that if compost has any synthetic materials in it, they disallow it. Additionally, industrial composting facilities are currently not well set up to process massive volumes of bioplastics (as they were developed as a solution organic rather than synthetic waste), and would need to be reconfigured to accommodate major increases in bioplastics.

Finally, there is a commonly held misperception that people are doing good by buying biodegradable items and sending those items to the landfill where they will simply disappear after a short amount of time. As we’ve described above, biodegradable items will decompose in a landfill environment - slowly, but more quickly than traditional plastic. However, that degradation actually leads to undesirable LFG emissions. So the end of life situation isn’t great in this scenario, and (making it even worse) the consumer actually leaves the experience with the sense that their action has been great for the planet.

Note that there is an emergence of new materials that actually biodegrade very easily, by soaking the item in hot water for example. We are intrigued by these new technologies and may explore them going forward if they meet other important aspects of our sustainability framework.

All of this is to say that the world of bioplastics and disposal options for bioplastics is still evolving, and is currently fraught with confusion that can lead to ill consequences and waste stream contamination. Because of this, and because bio-plastics are not yet designed to improve nutrient content of compost and render it as highly beneficial for soil, and because so few people still have access to curbside composting (for PLA and other compostable plastics) - we have given bio-plastics a “poor” rating on end-of-life, ability and likelihood of being recycled or disposed of properly.

We are confident this will improve over time and closely tracking forward progress in the industry!

What about the other things that are wrong with plastic?
There are other challenges with respect to plastic. From a health perspective, plastizers such as pthalates and bisphenol A (BPA), which are added to resin to reduce brittleness and promote plasticity, are two commonly cited examples of chemicals (some of which we know, some of which we don’t) that studies have shown to have a negative impact on our health. In some uses (such as food or IV bags), it is obvious how these toxins leach from the package to our bodies. Additionally, these chemicals are in our mattresses, furniture, cars - you name it. This is a very legitimate downside of plastic, and the toxic effects of bioplastic are unknown at this time. The short lifespan and minimal touch of ecommerce packaging likely makes this less of an issue, but there is no specific, though there is admittedly no clear and focused research on this question in particular.

Finally, for many, the folks here at EcoEnclose included, the biggest issue with plastic is that its arrival into our industrial world has catapulted us into a “single use” culture. From sandwich bags to plastic soda bottles to product packaging to disposable cutlery, inexpensive and highly versatile plastic has enabled companies to offer a host of goods that are designed to make our lives more convenient. Of course, many single use items are not plastic - glass food jars, paper towels, paper bags to name a small few. However, plastic seems to have helped establish this “convenience driven” culture, which in turn has led to an unbelievable amount of waste as the vast majority of goods we buy are either single-use themselves, or at the very least, arrive with much disposable packaging.

So what does this all mean for packaging?
Unfortunately, it means that EcoEnclose cannot and does not attempt to provide you with a single, universal rule for what material to package your goods with. EcoEnclose has instead focused on building a product line of packaging that is made with as much recycled content as humanly possible as we see this as the number one way to support eco friendly strategies and business practices.

Thus, we have made efforts to carry diverse packaging solutions that span both recycled paper and recycled plastic (but does not currently include bioplastics given that recycled bioplastics have not yet emerged).

If you ship something light (like a t-shirt) that fits in a mailer, we are likely to advise you (from a purely sustainability perspective) to go with our 100% recycled poly mailers. If you are shipping prints or photos, and need a stiffer, more protective option, we are likely to direct you to our 100% recycled rigid mailers. If you are shipping a collection of items, we are likely to direct you to a 100% recycled custom shipping box. If you happen to be shipping something to a place where absolutely no one recycles, ever (I hate to think of such a place!) we may actually encourage you to consider our plastic options which are more stable and take up less room in landfills than paper counterparts.