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Paperboard or Plastic?

We hear a lot about the weight of a product's package as if it were the sole criterion for determining sustainability. While less weight certainly helps reduce freight costs, distribution is only one of the six phases in the life cycle of a sustainable package and when plastic's bulk is considered, less weight may not mean less space in a landfill.

The facts are that according to the 2010 EPA MSW report, a record 66.8% of the paperboard packaging waste generated by Americans is recycled, as compared to 7.6% for plastics. In addition:

  • Over 45 million tons of paper and paperboard were recycled.
  • Since 1990, the amount of paper sent to landfills has decreased by 55%; paper and paperboard discarded into the waste stream as a percentage of the total has been cut in half while plastic has almost doubled.
  • In 2011, 75.4% of all paper-based packaging was recovered for recycling, compared to 13.5% for plastic.

Why such a difference? Although paperboard is readily and easily recycled, there are seven major grades of plastic, some of which are difficult to recycle and most cannot be intermixed.

Beginning in 2009, going green for manufacturers of consumer product goods meant reducing the amount of packaging to pare down the product’s carbon footprint. Although brand owners continue to look to their own operations, formulations, and waste generation to become better global citizens, landfills will continue to multiply unless we make drastic and permanent changes to our behavior.

When we throw something away, just because we can no longer see it does not mean it has magically ceased to exist. There are signs that we have finally begun to banish this mindset, as we all learn to reduce, reuse, and recycle.

But how can we live a more sustainable lifestyle if so much of what we buy is packaged in plastic?

Here’s the truth: plastic is here to stay. Like a world without paper, life would become a nightmare of inconvenience without it. Both these materials make our lives easier in uncountable ways. Rather, it’s what we do with it when we are through with it.

Naturally, PPC promotes recyclable, renewable, sustainable packaging made from paperboard. Yet we acknowledge there are many times when plastic is more appropriate for both the product and the consumer. So we applaud every effort to increase the recyclability of plastic packaging, to minimize its harmful effects on the environment, and to increase the use of non-fossil-fuel based materials.

Recycle Bin

The debate over whether paperboard or plastic offers the most environmentally friendly packaging solution misses the point, which is this: the entire packaging industry has an unprecedented opportunity to create new materials that minimize greenhouse gases, to use substrates which do not deplete the planet's resources, and to educate the consumer so that we all learn to live more sustainably.

In the long run, it’s not about paper versus plastic—it’s about taking responsibility; it’s about doing the right thing; it’s about working toward leaving a world our great-great-grandchildren will be grateful to inherit from us.

Read about the limitations of recycling plastics (pdf)