This is a guide discussing whether paper is 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 Paper More Sustainable Than Plastic?
There’s a few main points to consider when is comes to comparing the sustainability of paper and plastic …
1. Sourcing Of Material
Paper tends to come from a renewable resource in wood pulp, and other cellulose fibres.
Plastic tends to come from non renewable feedstock in petrochemicals like crude oil and natural gas.
The manufacturing/production of paper products tends to be far less environmentally friendly than plastic across several environmental indicators.
Although there has been a recent push to make paper production more sustainable, it has a history of significant environmental pollution (some paper mills have been among the top polluters in the world in terms of water pollution, air pollution, and more), along with water consumption and energy use
Paper tends to do worse at the delivery, transport and packaging stage.
Plastic is lighter and also tends to have less of a carbon footprint at this stage
4. Waste Management
Plastic tends to fare worse environmentally at the waste management and disposal, as well as pollution phases, because of how widely plastic is littered, how long it takes to break down, and the potential impact plastic can have in the environment and on wild life.
Paper can be recycled and is biodegradable, but paper recycling only does a certain amount to reduce it’s environmental footprint
From an environmental perspective, how sustainable paper and plastic are might depend on the exact environmental indicator you are measuring (greenhouse emissions, energy use, water use, waste generated, etc), and at what stage of the product or material lifecycle you are referring to
Outside of environmental indicators and measurements of sustainability, paper tends to cost more for businesses and consumers to produce and use
Plastic may present issues to human health in terms of leaching of BPA and other chemicals when used in plastic bottles, containers, etc., plus potential issues with micro and nano plastics
Plastic may also lead to ingestion by, and entanglement for wild life
Paper vs Plastic: Comparison
What They Are Made Of
Most paper comes from wood pulp, where as most plastic comes from petrochemicals such as crude oil or natural gas
Usually because paper is more energy intensive in production, it costs more than plastic (bankrate.com)
How Each Is Made
Both paper and plastic involves the use of chemicals and additives at the production stage.
Paper often uses a chemical pulp (to separate lignin from the cellulose fibres), along with other chemicals (bleaches, chlorates, etc.), fillers and additives at various stages.
Plastic also uses chemicals, fillers and additives depending on the type of plastic being made and the properties that it’s being designed to have.
Energy Use In Manufacturing
Paper bags use almost three times as much energy in the manufacturing process as plastic bags (bankrate.com), and some sources say four times as much energy (reusuablebags.com/science.howstuffworks.com).
Worldwide, the pulp and paper industry is the fifth largest consumer of energy, accounting for four percent of the entire world’s energy use (packnetltd.com).
Waste During Manufacturing
Paper bags cause more waste in the manufacturing process than plastic bags (bankrate.com)
Air Pollution During Production
Paper production … emits 70 percent more air pollution than the production of plastic bags (Thompson/science.howstuffworks.com)
Greenhouse Gas Emissions During Manufacturing
Some studies indicate paper manufacturing emits 80% more GHGs than plastic (Lilienfield/science.howstuffworks.com)
Water Pollutants During Manufacturing
Making paper bags results in 50 times more water pollutants than making plastic bags (Thompson/science.howstuffworks.com)
Water Consumption During Manufacturing
The production of paper bags uses three times the amount of water it takes to make plastic bags (Lilienfield/science.howstuffworks.com).
The pulp and paper industry is the largest single commercial user of water in Canada (packnetltd.com)
Overall Environmental Impact Of Paper Mills
Overall, paper mills are some of the worst polluters in the world (packnetltd.com).
Read more about the environmental impact of paper at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Environmental_impact_of_paper#Air_pollution
Paper weighs 10 times as much as plastic (bankrate.com)
Paper bags … weigh more than plastic; this means transportation requires more energy, adding to their carbon footprint (bbc.com)
Packaging & Delivery
A company found it could reduce it’s carbon footprint by 70 percent by switching from paper and cardboard packaging to plastic … and that recycling paper only halves the environmental impact (technikpackaging.com)
Paper has a higher recycling rate in the US at 64.7 percent, compared to plastic which had a recycling rate of 9.1% in 2015 in the US (thebalancesmb.com)
How Many Times Each Can Be Recycled
Both plastic and paper can only be recycled a finite number of times before needing to be downcycled, or sent to landfill, or incinerated. Both lose their economic value and quality after repeated recycling
Ease Of Recycling
Some sources say paper bags are easier to recycle than plastic bags (bankrate.com)
Production Of Waste
Paper bags generate 80 percent more solid waste [than plastic (Lilienfield/science.howstuffworks.com)
Other Recycling Challenges
Paper recycling can be inefficient, with new paper bags using less fuel than recycled bags.
Furthermore, it takes roughly 91 percent more energy to recycle a pound of paper than a pound of plastic (Milstein/reusablebags.com/science.howstuffworks.com)
Degradation Rate In Landfill
In a dry landfill, paper bags don’t degrade any faster than plastic bags.
In a normal, well-run landfill, paper bags do not biodegrade any faster over at least 40 years than plastic (bankrate.com)
Time To Break Down In Landfills Or In The Environment
Different paper items usually take a week to a few months to break down, where as plastic items take multiple to thousands of years, and some scientists believe plastic never fully goes away (responsiblecapetown.co.za, oceanconservancy.org)
Filling Up Space In Landfill
Paper bags are much bulkier than plastic [bags], so they fill up more landfill space/take up more volume (bankrate.com)
Most Commonly Found Material During Land & Beach Clean Ups
Marine Debris Found In The Ocean & On Beaches
Potential Effects On Humans & Animals
The potential impact of plastic on human health and wild life may be more significant than paper
Lifecycle Assessments Of Plastic Bags vs Paper Bags
Durability Of Paper Items
Paper can get wet, and might tear more easily than other materials. Other materials like plastic, metal, glass etc. might be more durable
Paper vs Plastic Bags Overall Environmental Impact
Plastic bags come out on the right side of the equation on everything except the recycling side (bankrate.com)
The Sustainability Of Plastic
Read more about the sustainability of plastic in this guide
Other Factors To Consider
Just as there is different types of plastic, there are different types of paper. Each different type of paper can have a different sustainability footprint
Using recycled paper makes a difference to sustainability compared to using paper from virgin resources
Sourcing paper from a sustainably managed forest or tree stock makes a difference in the sustainability of producing and using paper
Paper is made with different additives to control different features of the paper such as it’s size, thickness, and density, what it looks like, it’s printability, how strong it is, and so on. These things can impact sustainability
Paper can come with ink or printing on it, and it can be bleached. These things impact sustainability
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 paper product or item lasts, or how many times it can be used/re-used before being thrown out, impacts it’s sustainability footprint