Is switching from plastic to paper really better for the environment?

At first thought the answer to this question seems obvious. We’ve all seem the images of turtles with plastic straws stuck up their noses and whales washed up on beaches with a stomach full of plastic. And these images are horrifying indeed, showing what happens when plastic ends up in the ocean. Paper will not have the same effect, it’ll break up in water and won’t be as toxic to animals, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll save the planet.

The plastic / paper debate is complex

When debating the environmental impacts of paper or plastic bags and which is the better option, it will depend on who you ask, and which impacts you’re referring to. Are you talking about pollution, the carbon footprint or usage? Taking these factors into consideration, the impacts of paper versus plastic may surprise you.

Let’s start with pollution. There are massive plastic garbage patches in the ocean. Fish, snow and air contain microplastics. Plastic is everywhere and it’s choking the planet. Science has confirmed as much and as a result plastic has become the evil one. However, we need to consider why economies switched from paper to plastic in the first place. Back in the 70’s it was discovered that plastic bags and similar products could be made from manufacturing byproducts. They took less water and were cheaper to produce, were far more robust as a product, were lighter to transport and took up less space in landfill. It seemed like a good option at the time. But then again, I’m not sure the manufacturers considered how people would use plastic

And therein lies one of the biggest problems with plastic - it hasn’t been recycled and reused nearly as much as it could be. Hence the plastic pollution problem we sit with now. Most plastic packing up until now has been single use and is generated from virgin materials – very much the linear approach to manufacturing. When one considers the potential lifespan of most plastics, they could and should be recycled multiple times, yet at this point we’re lucky if they get recycled just once.  Usage has a major impact on the environmental effects.

Yes things are changing, slowly, as people recycle more, and more companies start to embrace the circular economy and switch to using recycled materials, but there is still a long way to go until this has any real impact on the amount of plastic pollution that has already been generated. The question is: is plastic pollution reason enough to switch from plastic to paper, and is reverting back to paper really the best solution for the environment?

The paper trail

In terms of pollution, paper may not have the same effect on the environment and wildlife as plastic, but it’s not without adverse impacts. Paper is far more resource intensive to produce and has a much higher carbon footprint – mostly because of the lengthy process of converting trees to usable paper products. Because processing involves a number of chemical processes, if waste water is not properly treated it can contribute significantly to environmental pollution. This is of course assuming a linear model using virgin resources.

But what about recycled paper? While recycling rates for paper tend to be higher than plastic, it is bulky to transport, increasing waste tonnage, and uses a fair amount of water to process. Not as much as in virgin processing, for sure, but it’s not without its impacts. The other problem is contamination which comes primarily from food waste and diverts paper from recycling to disposal, adding to landfill tonnage.

Many supermarkets are starting to change their packaging, using materials that can be recycled or are manufactured from recycled materials. It’s certainly a step in the right direction. Even shopping bags whether paper or plastic are being made from recycled materials, closing the loop and reducing the amount of material sent to landfill.  Removing single use plastic bags has had a major impact and many supermarkets and retail outlets are now moving away from black plastic.a

Perhaps that’s the more important question to be asking. It’s not whether paper or plastic is better, but what is the best use of it, is it fit for purpose, and how many times can it be reused or reinvented? Every day people are coming up with creative solutions to recycle more and create new products from recycled materials. But it’s how we use those products in the long term that’s going to have the most environmental impact.