In this guide, we outline whether cardboard might be more sustainable than plastic, and vice versa.
We compare some of the key factors involved in the production, usage and waste management of each.
Summary – Is Cardboard More Sustainable Than Plastic?
We’ve previous put together a guide on the sustainability of paper compared to plastic
However, but this guide focuses specifically on cardboard and plastic
Breaking Down Which Might Be More Sustainable
Some of the main sustainability considerations for cardboard and plastic might be:
1. Sourcing Materials
Cardboard is usually sourced from renewable wood pulp (processed into Kraft paper), or recycled cardboard material (cardboard has a high recycling rate).
So, there’s sustainable elements to the sourcing of cardboard
Most plastic on the other hand is sourced from non-renewable fossil fuels
Some may question whether we will run out of fossil fuels like oil or natural gas (used as a feedstock for plastic) anytime soon
The production process of cardboard may actually be less environmentally friendly than plastic
A major reason for this may be that paper mills are historically known for their water and energy use, and their use of chemicals
Air and water pollution can also be an issue at paper mills
Recycled cardboard may cut down on the environmental footprint of cardboard compared to cardboard using completely new material. Some sources indicate recycling ‘halves the environmental impact’
However, it’s unclear if recycled cardboard has a lower eco impact than plastic in terms of production
3. Transport & Packaging
Plastic might have a lower carbon footprint for packaging and for transporting and delivering goods than cardboard.
4. Disposal & Waste Management
Cardboard may have a clear sustainability benefit over plastic when it comes to disposal, waste management and end of product or material lifecycle.
Cardboard is bio-degradable and breaks down much quicker than plastic.
Cardboard may also have a much higher recycling rate than some plastics
Overall, comparing the sustainability of cardboard and plastic is dependent on various factors such as the environmental indicator being measured, the stage of the product or material lifecycle, the type of product being used, and other variables.
Cardboard may be more sustainable in some ways at the sourcing and waste management stages, whereas as plastic seems may be more sustainable in some ways at the production stage.
How Cardboard Is Used
Cardboard is a heavy duty type of paper, that is usually thicker and more durable than regular paper.
It is widely used for:
– Packaging, storage and box material
– Tubes for different products like toilet rolls
– Printed items and products like cards and signs
Some Of The Different Types Of Cardboard
Paper stock, paper board and corrugated cardboard are some of the different types of card board.
Cardboard vs Plastic: Comparison
General Sustainability Of Each Material
– Sourcing Of Materials
Cardboard comes from either wood pulp or recycled cardboard.
Cardboard might be more sustainable when sourced through a sustainable forestry certification or sustainable wood pulp production process
Cardboard still uses a certain amount of virgin material even when using recycled cardboard
Even recycling card board only ‘halves the environmental impact’ (technikpackaging.com)
Plastic usually comes from non-renewable fossil fuel feedstock like crude oil and natural gas
Some plastics come from recycled material, but the recycling rate of plastic in several countries can be low
Like paper, there has been some effort to make the production of cardboard more sustainable in recent years.
However, paper mills may still have an environmental impact to consider.
Plastic has an energy footprint to consider, and also uses chemicals and additives to make plastic material, which is a synthetic material
– Packaging, Delivery & Transport
As a packaging material, cardboard may be less sustainable than plastic in some ways:
Cardboard generally has a higher carbon footprint than plastic in packaging and for delivery or products as a packing material (technikpackaging.com).
When considered over the lifetime of the packaging, paper and cardboard embody far more greenhouse gases (theguardian.com)
– Recyclability, & Waste Management
Card board has a high recycling rate compared to plastic.
Some types of cardboard, like waxy or dirty/contaminated board is a challenge to recycle, but overall, cardboard has a recycling rate of 85.8 percent in Europe (blog.sappi-psp.com), compared to less than a third of plastic waste in Europe [being] recycled (europarl.europa.eu).
Plastic is one of the most heavily littered and polluted materials, especially in rivers and oceans.
Plastic can have a range of negative effects in the environment, not least is ingestion by and entanglement for marine animals.
– Biodegradability & Time To Degrade
Cardboard is biodegradable and might only take around 2 months to break down. Plastic on the other hand is not biodegradable and some researchers say plastic may never fully break down.
When plastic does break down, it can break down into microplastics and nanoplastics
– Potential Impact On Human Health
Plastic may also have potential health issues to consider such as leaching of chemicals (BPA, phthalates, etc.) and ingestion of microplastics to consider.
– Sustainability Of Different Types Of Cardboard
Some types of cardboard may be less sustainable than others:
One source indicates ‘corrugating medium [cardboard creates the least eco impact], with bleached kraft paperboard creating the most environmental impact (technikpackaging.com)
The Sustainability Of Plastic
Read more specifically about the sustainability of plastic in this guide.
This guide also outlines some of the overall pros and cons of plastic.
Other Factors To Consider
– Just as there are different types of plastic, there are different types of cardboard.
Each different type of cardboard can have a different sustainability footprint
– Recycled card board can have a different sustainability rating compared to card board made from virgin materials
– The waste management systems, facilities and technology in a given country or State make a difference to the sustainability not just of different materials, but different waste items and products (because of how different waste materials and items are processed among the different disposal options at different rates)
– How long a cardboard product or item lasts, or how many times it can be used/re-used before being thrown out, impacts it’s sustainability footprint