Plastic vs. Paper Packaging FAQ
February 8, 2023
February 8, 2023
Plastic, like paper, is a material that most of us encounter every day. These materials are ubiquitous within our lives, which may cause you to wonder just how sustainable and recyclable they are, especially in the context of single-use packaging. The question is an important one, especially given a steadily growing amount of global plastic production. In 2021, 139 million metric tons of single-use plastic waste were generated globally, a 6 million metric ton increase from 2019. Without action, the Ellen McArthur foundation estimates that by 2050 there could be more plastic than fish in the oceans. In this article, you’ll learn the difference between paper and plastic recycling, as well as answer key questions on the sustainable qualities of these materials.
When most of us think of paper, we think of the familiar product made from wood pulp, which is the most common form today. However, paper has been made through its history with fibers from many other sources, including grass, bark, leaves, and even discarded textiles. Today, paper that incorporates alternative materials, such as grass pulp, are still available.
The key to virgin paper’s sustainability is the fact that trees are a renewable resource. The trees that eventually become paper can be grown within sustainably managed forest lands, which preserve old growth forest habitats and create a source of forest products that can be replenished, rather than depleted. Within sustainably managed forests, it is common for multiple trees to be planted for each single tree that is harvested. Organizations like the FSC® set rules for how products can be harvested and what constitutes a sustainably managed forest, with attention paid to plants, animals, and people who live in and rely on those ecosystems. Consumers can seek out paper products that are certified by forestry management groups to ensure that their products are fully a part of the circular economy.
Learn more about the circular economy
The majority of plastics used in packaging are derived from fossil fuels. In fact, it’s estimated that 98% of single-use plastic is derived from fossil fuels, meaning that virtually all of the packaging in circulation for every-day disposable products originates from oil and gas. Aside from the processes used in fossil fuel extraction, which can be environmentally harmful by themselves, fossil fuel is a finite resource which does not regenerate in the same way that trees and grasses do. There are ongoing efforts to develop more sustainable sources of plastics, mostly through the development of bioplastic materials that use more sustainable primary ingredients to create plastic.
While it’s common to think of bioplastics as plastic made from organic material that breaks down in a natural environment, bioplastic is an umbrella term that includes several categories of plastic with different qualities. Because the qualities of these materials can be very different from each other, the term bioplastic should not be taken as a guarantee of a material’s sustainability.
Some bioplastics are plastics that are derived from organic materials. The materials used in the creation of these bioplastics are typically sugars, starches, and oils derived from biomass, such as potatoes, vegetable oils, and sugar cane to name a few sources. The primary benefit of these bioplastics is that their raw materials come from organic, and thus, renewable sources unlike traditional refined fossil fuels.
Some bioplastics can biodegrade within the right conditions. However, questions around how long they can take to biodegrade within nature have seen greenwashing accusations made towards proponents. For example, bioplastics that require high heat conditions to break down efficiently and can be composted within industrial composting facilities may be technically “compostable,” but they will not break down at an accelerated rate within a typical garden compost heap that most consumers would associate with this term.
Image Source: European Bioplastics Fact Sheet
Substrates are commonly referred to as bioplastic if they fall into any of the categories below:
Bio-based, but not biodegradable. These plastics are synthesized using organic raw materials instead of fossil fuels, but do not biodegrade naturally.
Example materials include bio-based polyethylene (PE), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polytrimethylene terephthalate (PTT), and polyethylene furanoate (PEF).
Fossil fuel-based and biodegradable. These plastics are synthesized using fossil-fuels but can biodegrade under the right conditions.
Example materials include polybutylene adipate terephthalate (PBAT) or polycaprolactone (PCL).
Bio-based and biodegradable. These plastics are derived from bio-based material and will also biodegrade with time in a natural environment.
Example materials include polylactic acid (PLA), polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs), and polybutylene succinate (PBS).
Because paper is made from natural fibers, it can break down in nature through the action of microorganisms and return to the environment withing a period of weeks to months. Hotter and wetter conditions can increase the rate with which paper breaks down, meaning that paper can be composted as well.
The biodegradability of paper can be slowed down by certain chemical treatments or the addition of plastic liners, and when the paper material has biodegraded away, microplastics can remain behind. Given that paper can be given a new useful life as material through recycling, it is best to use the recycling bin as the primary method for your paper disposal, helping conserve raw materials and support the circular economy.
The different methods and raw materials used to make plastic polymers impact how they degrade over time. While different polymers do occur in nature, those that we typically think of as plastic are man-made. The qualities that make plastic so useful, such as its resistance to wear and tear, are significant drawbacks when plastic enters the environment as pollution. Plastic items do not break down for decades to centuries and become micro-plastic particles when they do finally break down. Micro-plastics have been found in every environment on earth, from the polar ice caps to tropical rainforests.
The process of breaking down into microplastic over time means that traditional plastic is a degradable material, as opposed to biodegradable, which refers to materials that are broken down by the actions of microorganisms and bacteria, converting them back into natural building blocks within the environment.
Certain types of bioplastic, such as PHAs, are produced by organic processes and are therefore able to biodegrade within a natural environment. Not all bioplastic is naturally biodegradable. Some can break down biologically through specific conditions-for example many compostable bioplastics require high-heat industrial composting facilities to break down, contrary to the image of a garden compost heap that might resonate with a typical consumer. There are not many of these specialized composting facilities today, meaning that much of the bioplastic produced and marketed as compostable does not ultimately get composted. For instance, as of June 2021, there were 185 facilities for industrial composting located in the U.S and just 170 industrial composting facilities across the U.K.
In the US, the total plastic recycling rate has been estimated at just 5-6%. Considering the 40 million tons of plastic waste generated in 2021, the result is that roughly 38 million tons of plastic waste was not recycled, instead being incinerated or ending up within a landfill. Thanks to a well-developed infrastructure for paper recycling as well as a broad public understanding of its recyclability, paper in the US enjoys a 68% recycling rate that has grown from 33.5% in 1990.
Within the countries of the EU, roughly a third of plastics within the waste stream are collected for recycling. By contrast, the recycling rate for paper material in 2020 was 81.6%. and has remained over 80% every year since 2008.
Even plastics that are relatively recyclable with existing infrastructure supporting collection have fibers that will typically not support more than 2-3 uses before no longer being effective for new products. While plastic recycling may be commonly thought of as an infinite loop where the same materials can be used over and over again, the reality is that the quality of plastic material declines with each recycling. In a process that is sometimes referred to as “downcycling”, these materials can only be used to make products of a lesser quality without an infusion of virgin materials to increase strength.
Paper is typically able to be recycled up to 7 times before its fibers are no longer viable for recycling, making it a more reusable product overall. As paper fibers are recycled, they will also become shorter and become useful for different paper applications. A good example of paper that often incorporates highly recycled material is newspaper, and the differences in texture and strength are clear when holding this material alongside a high strength piece of virgin kraft. By blending different grades of recycled paper and fiber from different sources, a broad range of paper types can be made using recycled content.
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