TerraCycle: Debate between paper and plastic packaging has been ongoing for years, but neither is perfect; Terracycle's partnership with Malt-O-Meal serves as good example of how companies can address pros and cons of paper and plastic at once
TRENTON, New Jersey
July 31, 2014
– Plastic Bag vs. Paper Box: Which is Better (and “Greener”) for Business?
The debate between paper and plastic packaging has been ongoing for years, and it’s only been reinvigorated by the recent surge in municipal plastic bag bans affecting cities across the country. Conscious consumers are increasing both in number and contempt for product companies that aren’t socially-conscious, and in the battle for sustainable packaging, the “plastic versus paper” discussion is often on the frontlines. It’s important for brands to address this vigilant consumer base and preserve a sense of social responsibility with regards to their products and packaging, while simultaneously doing what is right for business. That said, what exactly is the better choice: the paper box, or plastic bag?
For conscious consumers and brands hoping to provide an eco-friendly material for packaging, paper, cardboard and cardstock often feel like natural choices. Wood-based paper and cardboard is derived from a renewable resource after all, and when the wood in packaging is responsibly harvested and contains no chemical additives, is even carbon-neutral upon incineration. Unbleached, uncoated paper products can be composted, and paper is a widely recycled material across municipalities nationwide. In fact, EPA data estimates that 65% of the 68 million tons of paper materials generated by Americans in 2012 was recycled. Its natural biodegradability makes it especially lucrative from an “eco” standpoint as well.
Still, there are quite a few downsides. Due to the differences in material strength, more paper is required to make a piece of paper packaging that is as strong as a plastic alternative. Manufacturing paper actually causes more air pollution than plastic manufacturing – 70% more, in fact. In many cases, paper even requires more energy and water to produce than plastic. Besides, if a paper box does end up in a landfill with no exposure to sun or oxygen, it might never fully biodegrade.
As an alternative packaging material, plastic is very cheap, lightweight, and easy to manufacture with. It’s amazingly cost-effective for manufacturers, but can hardly be considered an eco-friendly material itself. Plastic never degrades or disappears from the environment; it only gets broken down into smaller pieces when exposed to direct sunlight (photodegradation), which might be impossible anyway if buried in a landfill. Even “biodegradable” plastics aren’t as biodegradable as they are often marketed as. Besides, petroleum-derived plastics continue to embolden our passion for unsustainable fossil fuels, and they can leach harmful chemical compounds into groundwater if left unattended in an ecosystem.
Many plastics are also largely considered “unrecyclable.” While the high-density polyethylene (HDPE, #2) in your milk jug, or polyethylene terephthalate (PETE, #1) in your water bottle can usually be municipally recycled, low-density polyethylene (LDPE, #4) bags, and polypropylene (PP, #5) containers are usually not. With no monetary incentive to recycle these plastics, they are landfilled. Even worse is when plastic packaging and bags get strewn throughout the environment, potentially endangering wildlife and marine animals.
It should be clear now that neither paper nor plastic is perfect, and there are far too many considerations that limit our ability to label either material as the most ideal. So what are companies to do about it? Steps taken by cereal supplier Malt-O-Meal serve as a good example of how companies can address the pros and cons of both paper and plastic at once. By scrapping box packaging in favor of only plastic cereal bags, Malt-O-Meal has been able to avoid the high levels of water and energy consumption associated with paper manufacturing. By using less costly plastic bags, the company is also able to pass savings on materials down to consumers for a less expensive product.
But wait, what about the ecological impact of plastic you mentioned just moments ago? That’s where my company, TerraCycle, comes in. At TerraCycle, we develop recycling solutions for plastic packaging and other waste materials that are not traditionally recycled. By helping companies recycle the waste generated from their product packaging, we offer an end-of-life solution to waste that normally would end up in a landfill. By partnering with Malt-O-Meal, we are able to operate a recycling program for post-consumer generated MOM Brand cereal bags. This way, Malt-O-Meal benefits from the economic pros of using plastic, while simultaneously addressing the negative effects of the material on the environment.
Recycling programs show that if there is a recycling solution in place, plastic can be a great choice for packaging. As it stands, however, alternative solutions are few and far between. Paper and cardboard boxes, on the other hand, are more eco-friendly from a material standpoint, but involve a very unsustainable and environmentally-taxing manufacturing process. The most ideal solution from an environmental perspective will always be reduction at the source, or the use of reusable packaging at the very least. Until then, we must consider all possible faces of the die, as choosing between paper and plastic is not as black and white of a decision as is often portrayed.