About packaging: paper good – plastic bad?

Not quite, but if you were looking for a simple bullet point answer, I’ve got to disappoint you, the best I can do is this: Well, it all depends…


So paper is better than plastic because paper composts quickly and plastic takes forever? Well, a quarter of solid municipal waste in landfill is paper. Let that sink in: A quarter! When paper goes to landfill, it decomposes under anaerobic conditions and creates methane, a greenhouse gas 30 times more powerful than CO2. Not everybody has home composting facilities and thus a lot of paper packaging will still go to landfill.

So, recycle it then? Well, paper or cardboard contaminated with food or other organic dirt (mud, oil) cannot be recycled and a lot of fresh veg will be muddy, making the paper packaging unsuitable for the recycling waste stream.

But paper is made from trees and trees are a renewable resource, whereas plastic is made from fossil oils, which is not renewable and should be kept in the ground, as it’s bad for the climate? Yes, but the paper making process is not exactly a clean industry either. It requires a lot of energy to harvest and process trees and when forests are clear felled to harvest trees, entire ecosystems are destroyed in the process. Yes, you can re-plant, but it does take a very long time to get back to being a fully functional forest. Also the en-masse planting of conifers where they are not a native species can lead to acidification of both soils and water courses. Then there is the actual paper manufacturing process, which has a very large water footprint, consumes significant amounts of energy and can involve very toxic chemicals. The latter is especially true if recycled paper is used to make the new product and 70% of the UK paper industry’s raw materials are recovered papers.

Let’s look at transport next: Research has shown that to ship the same number of bags, it would take 7 lorries of paper versus 1 lorry of plastic. This is because paper is far heavier and bulkier than plastic, meaning that paper packaging causes greater transport emissions than plastic by a significant margin.

Durability and re-use ability: Paper packaging for fruit and vegetables tends to be cheap and poorly made. If the produce to be packed is at all damp (freshly picked veg will often be picked in the rain), paper bags are worse than useless. Most paper bags for packing fresh produce are single use items; use once and throw away, so when we compare plastic versus paper, this is an important and often overlooked factor. Plastic bags, on the other hand, can be reused multiple times and are not affected by damp. Research from 2006 looked into how many times alternative packaging had to be reused to be more environmentally friendly than plastic and found that paper needs to be reused at least three times and cotton more than 130 times.

Then there’s suitability: packaging is used not just to make produce easier to handle, but also to keep it fresh. Freshly picked salad leaves will keep in good eating condition for days, if refrigerated in a plastic bag. In a paper bag, under the same conditions, it will last less than a day before going limp. Food waste is a big problem for the UK. When we waste food by buying more than we can consume before its use by date, and throw it away, most of that will end up in landfill where it will decompose under anaerobic conditions, emitting methane. That also means that all the energy to grow, package and refrigerate the produce has gone to waste. Plastic keeps fresh produce fresh for longer, allowing a much larger window of time for the food to be consumed and thereby prevents food waste.

Pricewise, it is marginally cheaper to use paper. However, packing veg in paper bags can be a frustrating and slow process, due to the fragility of the material. When weighing out produce into paper bags, we often must repeat pack, as the paper bag does not survive the process the first time round, necessitating slower packing and thereby costing more in labour and time.

Given all that information, how come that the public’s perception remains that paper is more environmentally friendly than plastic? The main reason is the way we deal with plastic after we’re done with it. It is indisputable that we have a plastic disposal problem. It’s great when we are all recycling our plastic bags, but a big problem when that recycling ends up halfway across the world in rivers and oceans, which is clearly unacceptable. It is also a waste of a resource, as plastic packaging can be recycled into many durable products, not least plastic timber, which is long lasting and avoids the need for wood timber and thus deforestation. But as shown in earlier paragraphs, replacing our plastic food packaging with paper is not a silver bullet either. Plastic pollution is undoubtably an important issue to be addressed, and has rightfully received a lot of attention recently, but the source of this pollution lies with lack of regulation, corruption, and crime, rather than with the plastic product.

Another reason for the public’s confusion is the lack and quality of the available research. A lot of the research on the topic is old and production methods of both plastic and paper have evolved. It is also not easy to find truly unbiased research, as plastic manufacturers will be inclined to show that plastic is the better option and paper merchants will do likewise for their product.

But this we know:

  • Plastic prevents food waste.
  • Plastic can be re-used.
  • Transport of plastic bags is less carbon intensive than that of paper bags.
  • Plastic is more suitable for packing damp produce.

Being that the main problem with plastic is its disposal, MVB addresses this by offering their customers the service of allowing them to return our plastic packaging for us to sustainably dispose of, after they have hopefully reused it several times.

What about the newer eco packaging materials? The biodegradable or compostable plastic bags made from a variety of organic materials, such as bagasse (sugarcane), nettles, potato starch, bamboo, cane starch. Lets rule out biodegradable plastic straight away, as these products are worse than ordinary plastic and they break down into microplastics and various other toxic substances. Truly compostable plastics, made from plant starches do hold some promise as they break down during the composting process, however: some types are not suitable for home composting, as they need high temperatures to break down and many councils’ composting equipment is not set up for dealing with these bags, which clog up their equipment. Therefore, the majority of councils will ask that you put these compostable plastic bags in general household waste. If that goes to incineration then all good, as most of these schemes now generate heat and/or power, but if it goes to landfill, it will decompose under anaerobic conditions and emit methane, that powerful greenhouse gas.

So far, compostable plastic bags are a lot more expensive than the ordinary plastic ones, meaning that the price of the products packaged in them has to go up. And what’s more, customers do not like them. They tend to be opaque, rather than clear and some brands go wrinkly in response to damp. How their production energy and water footprint compare to plastic, I cannot find any information on, so more information and research is definitely needed. 

So why do brands and businesses that are perceived to be more environmentally conscious continue to use paper for perishables? It is exactly because there is a lack of easily available, unbiased, recent research and thus an unclear picture persists. The public focusses on the issues that get media attention and recently, plastic pollution has been front and centre of the news. People also like simple explanations and as this epistle shows, the picture is complex and changeable. And rather than giving a 20 min lecture or a two-page explainer to each customer who queries the use of plastic packaging, it is easier to just go with public opinion and choose to use less sustainable, but more socially acceptable paper packaging.

By Ann Owen