Paper or plastic? Which is better for the environment?

Resource Recovery

August 7, 2018

Tags: Paper, Plastics

Plastic is in the spotlight as policy-makers around the world escalate legislation against indiscriminate consumption of single use items. The UK are looking to take their environmental agenda beyond plastic bag bans by removing plastic straws, cotton buds and stirrers from retailers, and companies like McDonald’s are set to replace plastic straws with paper in September.

In Australia, ABC’s War on Waste has called attention to the #StrawNoMore movement, taking aim at single use plastic straws in its latest series.

As the conversation shifts towards paper as an alternative to plastic, people are asking “Which is better for the environment – paper or plastic?”. Rather than focusing on consumption alone, what questions should we be asking about the sustainable production of materials?

Paper is a renewable resource but takes more energy to make

Paper is made from raw wood from trees, which are a renewable resource when grown sustainably. It’s argued to be a preferable alternative to plastic because it’s biodegradable, compostable and recyclable.

Plastic is made from fossil fuels such as coal, natural gas and crude oil, all considered to be non-renewable resources. Plastic can take thousands of years to decompose while paper degrades naturally within a decade.

Products that are ‘natural’ may seem like a better choice but paper bags actually have a greater environmental impact than high-density polyethylene plastic bags because of the production process and the amount of material needed per bag.

Paper requires four times as much energy and three times the amount of water to produce compared to plastic. It’s also heavier and bulkier, so more fuel and trucks are needed for transport.

The other downside of paper is its bulk – while it doesn’t take more than a few years to break down, it does take space, another reason why it should be recycled instead of being sent to landfill.

Plastic is not the problem, what we do with it is

Plastic is a lightweight, durable and versatile material, and is less resource-intensive to produce than paper. This means that plastic is potentially more reusable than paper, takes up less space in general waste and has a lower environmental impact from the manufacturing process.

When carelessly discarded, plastic litters our streets, waterways and oceans, causing serious harm to wildlife and this is where the problem lies. Just like paper, plastic is recyclable when properly collected and sent to recycling facilities without contamination. Although this usually means that lesser-quality material is produced after each recycling cycle, the bottom line is recycling diverts waste from landfill and the environment.

Every household and business can reduce impact

Every product – paper, plastic or otherwise – has an environmental impact. Households and businesses can collectively reduce their impact by avoiding single use products wherever possible and replacing them with reusable alternatives.

For businesses that produce a lot of paper, cardboard or plastic waste, sorting these materials at the source with specific waste streams is the best way to maximise their recovery for recycling – and to reduce the volume in your general waste bin.

Our dedicated cardboard recycling service is a great way to divert waste from landfill while reducing the weight and cost of general waste collection. For many businesses, a secure document destruction service is the key to safely and sustainably disposing of confidential paper waste, records, contracts, tenders, files, or other printed materials.

Source separation like this creates a high-quality commodity that is vital to the circular economy where recycled material is used to make new products.

Big business can make a big difference

Larger businesses can optimise product design and packaging to be recyclable at the end of its useful life. By building sustainability into the supply chain, manufacturers stimulate domestic demand for recovered materials, create more investment, more jobs, and ultimately, recover more materials – also known as a triple bottom line.

In a landmark move, Unilever Australia has announced that at least 25 percent of its product packaging will come from post-consumer recycled plastic. Unilever will use recycled HDPE plastic from local council recycling bins for bottles of its brands such as OMO, Dove, Surf and Sunsilk. The program will recirculate approximately 750 tonnes of recycled plastic each year – equivalent to more than 100 million plastic bags.

The announcement comes on the heels of Unilever’s global commitment to design all its plastic packaging to be fully reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025 and to use at least 25% recycled plastic packaging by 2025.

Clive Stiff, CEO Unilever Australia & New Zealand called for key stakeholders to participate in the shift towards a circular economy – “As a consumer goods company, we are acutely aware of the consequences of a linear take-make-dispose model and we want to change it. We are proud to be taking this step forward, but no business can create a circular economy in isolation. Creating a local market and demand for all types of recycled plastic is critical and heavy lifting is needed from all players involved – suppliers, packaging converters, brand owners, policy makers and retailers, collectors, sorters and recyclers. We need a complete shift in how we think about and use resources.”

Australia has set the target of making packaging 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025 with the support of the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) while organisations such as the Australian Council of Recycling (ACOR) continue to work closely with governments to improve recycling and resource recovery.

Contact us to find out more about our paper, cardboard and plastic recycling services.

Paper and plastic not a concern for your home or business? Find out more about other waste streams including food waste and e-waste and how you can make a difference in the War on Waste.