Sustainable Packaging Blog

Which is more eco-friendly...paper, or biodegradable plastic?

    • Paper is usually made from plant based sources and as such will biodegrade and is compostable.
    • Paper comes from renewable farmed resources
    • Plastic is mainly manufactured from oil which is a finite resource
    • Plastic can be made from plant based sources and is called bioplastic. This performs in the same way as plastic made from oil. It is not necessarily biodegradable.
    • Most plastic is recyclable providing it is NOT biodegradable.
    • Paper is easily recycled by most UK households
    • Biodegradable plastics will only biodegrade in the right conditions, usually when buried. Littered biodegradable plastic will not breakdown any faster than regular plastic in the open air, or in the sea.

    Paper is biodegradable AND recyclable.

    Plastic is biodegradable OR recyclable.

    Paper is biodegradable and recyclable

    Biodegradable plastics will contaminate any recycling loop where the recycled plastic material is fed into the supply chain for manufacturing warranted plastic goods such as plastic rainwater guttering and plastic damp-proof membranes. Even a very small amount will render the recycled material unusable for manufacture.

    Paper is biodegradable because is made from plant materials and most plant materials are biodegradable.

    Paper is easily recycled and can be recycled up 6 or 7 times before the paper fibres become too short to be used for paper production.

    Plastic in the ocean

    Plastic in the ocean

    We have been alerted to the ecological disaster facing our marine life because of the millions of tonnes of plastics which have been evident in every part of the ocean.

    Biodegradable plastics are designed to degrade in landfill. Compostable plastics are designed to compost, but some compostable plastics can only be processed by industrial composting plants that have to operate at specific temperature for a minimum period of time.

    Home Compostable Plastics

    There has been an increase in availability of home compostable plastics. However a recent survey by Business Waste revealed that 97% of UK households DO NOT compost. You can read the article HERE.

    This raises the question as to why so much effort is expended in producing home compostable plastics when only a very small percentage of households have the facility to compost.

    You cannot recycle compostable plastic, and if it ends up in the sea it poses as much a threat to marine life as any other type of plastic.

    Biodegradable plastics are not designed to degrade in water

    European Bioplastics have an article about this called 'Biodegradable plastics were never designed to be a solution to marine litter'.

    They quote the United Nations Environment Program:

    “Plastics marked as ‘biodegradable’ do not degrade rapidly in the ocean…. National and international standards have been developed to define terms such as ‘compostable’ and ‘biodegradable’ which refer exclusively to terrestrial systems, most typically to industrial composting in which temperatures are expected to exceed 50°C for extended periods of weeks or months (UNEP 2015a).”

    Paper can degrade in any environment

    Obviously paper will last for years if stored in dry conditions away from sunlight. But in the unfortunate event of paper being discarded in the open environment, buried or dropped in the sea, then it will naturally degrade and be absorbed harmlessly into the local eco-system.

    Benefits of plastics

    One of the benefits of plastic packaging has been the reduction in food waste. Plastic provides protection against contamination in various scenarios. Plastic has a high calorific value (higher than coal) and waste plastic can be used as a fuel for energy recovery.

    Which is more eco-friendly?

    Clearly paper is more eco-friendly than bio-degradable plastics, but this is only relevant where paper can be used instead of plastic. There are applications where plastic has to be used. The question is, is it better to use a plastic that can be recycled? Or is it better to use a plastic that is designed to be biodegradable, and hope that it ends up in the right place?

    Paper myths and facts

    For an in-depth discussion about biodegradable plastics, read my blog titled 'ARE BIODEGRADABLE PLASTICS ECO-FRIENDLY?'

     

    Posted on Jun 5, 2018 3:06:36 PM by Michael Steedman in paper packaging, in eco-friendly packaging, in environmentally friendly plastic, in recycling, in Eco-friendly, in biodegradable plastic, in pollution

    Michael Steedman

    Written by Michael Steedman

    Michael Steedman has worked in the packaging industry for nearly 30 years and has considerable experience providing packaging solutions for many industry sectors.

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