Is Paper Packaging Truly Eco-Friendly?

Is Paper Packaging Truly Eco-Friendly?

Is Paper Packaging Truly Eco-Friendly?

Paper packaging may seem like the more eco-friendly option compared to plastic, right? but it’s important to be aware of potential chemical contaminants, marketing tactics, and greenwashing.

A trip to the grocery store often means making choices, not just about the products we buy, but also about the packaging they come in. Sometimes, we encounter seemingly identical fruits and vegetables, but they come wrapped in different materials like cardboard or plastic. It’s tempting to think that paper packaging is better for the environment, but is that really the case?

According to Tatiana Sokolova, an associate professor at the Tilburg School of Economics and Management in the Netherlands, people tend to perceive paper packaging as more environmentally friendly. However, her study in 2023 revealed that this perception is not always accurate.

Sokolova discovered that consumers generally view paper packaging as inherently good. While it is true that paper is generally easier to recycle compared to plastic, it doesn’t mean that paper doesn’t have its own environmental costs.

The pulp and paper sector contributed to just under 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions from industry in 2022, as reported by the International Energy Agency. By 2030, experts anticipate this percentage to increase. Moreover, we must consider the impact of deforestation.

It’s not only about production. Sokolova highlighted that paper packaging tends to be heavier than plastic, resulting in higher emissions from trucks transporting paper-wrapped goods to stores. Furthermore, she mentioned that paper packaging is often coated with plastic.

“A prime example is the paper cup,” she explained. “Many people believe that they are eco-friendly. To contain liquid, especially hot beverages, paper requires lining with plastic. This makes recycling very challenging.”

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Most Plastic Worldwide Isn’t Recycled

The majority of the plastic produced worldwide is not recycled. This is concerning because the production of plastic, which relies on fossil fuels like crude oil, contributes to approximately 3.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, less than 10% of the massive amount of plastic produced each year, over 400 million metric tons, is actually recycled.

Is Paper Packaging Truly Eco-Friendly?
Is Paper Packaging Truly Eco-Friendly?

To exacerbate the issue, Europe and the United States ship a significant amount of plastic waste to countries in the Global South, such as Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and Indonesia. These countries often struggle to properly handle and dispose of this waste.

“Cardboard is generally more recyclable because recycling facilities for cardboard are more widespread,” stated Llorenc Mila i Canals, the head of the Life Cycle Initiative at the UN Environment Program. “Conversely, most places do not recycle many types of plastics, which consist of various polymers.”

Polypropylene, polystyrene, polyethylene, and other plastic types are distinct materials with their own recycling methods, as explained by Bethanie Carney Almroth, a professor specializing in ecotoxicology and environmental sciences at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.

It is crucial that we address these issues and find sustainable solutions to reduce plastic waste and increase recycling rates worldwide.

Is Paper Packaging Truly Eco-Friendly?

One of the most common methods of recycling, as stated by her, involves rinsing the plastic, breaking it into small flakes, and then melting it to produce new plastic pellets.

However, she pointed out that this process poses a challenge because the materials come from various sources and may contain different chemical mixtures. Furthermore, previous use could have contaminated these materials with chemicals.

In their study on recycled plastic in the Global South, Carney Almroth and her team discovered a combination of chemicals from different plastics, along with other potentially hazardous contaminants.

These contaminants include pesticides, pharmaceuticals, and food additives, which should not be present in plastics, especially in recycled plastic food packaging materials.

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Are there any eco-friendly options available?

Manufacturers can sustainably grow trees, harvest them, and replant them in ways that benefit the environment, making paper production eco-friendly. Alternatively, manufacturers can produce paper entirely from recycled materials rather than using new resources.

However, it is important to note that both paper and plastic have limitations when it comes to recycling. In some cases, substances like inks or chemicals can contaminate recycled products, resulting in lower quality compared to the original.

Another viable alternative is the production of plastics from sources such as corn, sugar, or wood residue. These materials do not rely on fossil fuels like traditional plastics, resulting in a smaller carbon footprint. However, it’s crucial to acknowledge that the bioplastics industry sometimes overlooks or downplays the presence of chemicals in these bioplastics.

According to her statement, manufacturers incorporate potentially harmful chemicals into plastic during production to enhance stability or provide desired characteristics. Contaminants may also be present or formed during the production process.

The lack of transparency and reporting requirements makes it difficult to identify these chemicals, she emphasized. This lack of transparency applies not only to plastic packaging but also to paper packaging.

Despite portraying a positive image, bioplastics often overlook other disadvantages. Critics have referred to this as greenwashing. These drawbacks include the sourcing of raw materials such as corn or sugar, as well as related issues like deforestation, land use, and food security. The cultivation of crops for bioplastics occupies land that could otherwise produce food.

Shift from recycling to reusing

According to experts, it’s not easy to determine whether paper packaging is better than plastic or vice versa due to various factors. However, this dilemma is overshadowing a larger issue: our throwaway culture that is spiraling out of control.

Plastics are commonly used in single-use products because they are inexpensive, but they are not designed to be reused, as pointed out by Sokolova.

Instead of fixating on the choice between paper and plastic, experts suggest that we focus on opting for reusable packaging, such as glass bottles, or better yet, reducing our overall consumption.

There will always be trade-offs, whether it’s related to greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity, microplastic pollution, water usage, or other factors, as emphasized by the UN’s Llorenc Mila i Canals. The crucial decision lies in shifting away from single-use products and embracing reusable alternatives, or even avoiding the use of certain products altogether if possible.

Mila i Canals also highlights the importance of avoiding overpackaged fruit at supermarkets, as nature already provides them in a perfectly packaged form.

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