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The myths of paper and plastic packaging

By Steffen Andersen · 17. February 2020

For the last couple of years been a long discussion about whether paper or plastic packaging is the most environmentally friendly packaging. Lately there has only been one response, and that was plastic packaging is bad for the environment and paper packaging is the only right thing to use. In this post, we will be diving into what is the pros and cons in regard to the environmental friendliness of each of the materials used for packaging.

The degradability

When talking about plastic packaging the first thing that pop-up to your mind is the degradability of plastic packaging, and especially that most of the packaging ends up in the ocean, so let’s start digging into that.

One of the worst attributes of plastic packaging in regard to the environment might also be one of it’s best attributes, the durability, and degradability of plastic packaging. There is no specific time frame for how long it will take plastic packaging to degrade but it is probably at least a couple of centuries it takes for it to degrade. If you then compare that to paper packaging which is known to have a shorter time of degradability, the time of how long it takes to degrade vary a lot from product to product. It varies a lot from product to product, due to many paper products are actually coated with plastic inside to make the paper able to contain liquids – This is the case for paper cups, milk cartons, and food boxes. For example, the time it takes to degrade paper straws in nature is 6-9 months, but if it is a paper cup it will take more than a decade to degrade.

How much of the plastic packaging made in Europe do then end up in nature and the ocean? In Europe, we are actually rather good at sending our waste to compostable facilities and make sure that what can be recycled is recycled, and the rest is burned and turned into energy. In reality, most of the plastic waste in the oceans come from Asia and Africa.

CO2 emission during the production

The emission of co2 during the production and the impact it has on the climate, that is one of the areas in the discussion of environmentally friendly packaging that is not taken into consideration.

Plastic products are produced by extracting Naphtha from oil and it is then heated and formed into the shape of the packaging. It is rather simple producing and making plastic. When making paper it is a bit of longer process because threes have to be cut down, and then made into wood pulp before it is turned into paper and then, in the end, it has to send to the facility where it is made into the end product. The longer process of the production of paper cups is also shown in the co2 emitted during production actually, paper cups emit more than 5 times as much co2 during production than plastic cups.[1]

Recyclability

In regard to the recyclability of paper and plastic materials, they are very much alike. First off, they are rarely recycled if they have been in contact with food because if they go into the wrong batch it can destroy a batch full of recycled plastic or paper. This is because recycled paper and plastic cannot be used to make food contact materials such as paper cups, plastic cups, and etc.  Many recycling facilities are unfortunately also not able to recycle food packaging because they do not have the procedures and any machinery to recycle this kind of packaging or materials. The waste will instead of being recycled then be burned and used to generate energy, which is quite fine for the environment, but the best would be for it to be recycled.

The thing that has the biggest impact on whether the paper or plastic packaging is recycled is if they are sent to the correct facilities that have the machinery to recycle it. This means both the waste handling in the country and technology of the facilities determine whether the products are recycled.

Conclusion

The conclusion to this must be that how you dispose of the materials is what determines which products are mostly environmentally friendly. There are a lot more factors that influence the environmental friendliness of the products, but we should consider that in regard to the climate and emission of co2 that the production and how we dispose of the materials.

We, in general, believe that we should try and make more environmentally friendly products in the packaging industry, but it is not always the best way to lower the environmental impact by just banning and removing plastic packaging.


[1] Hocking.SpringerVerlag.Energy Use of 5 Different Cups – energy analysis

Content and Marketing Manager at Limepack

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