Paper Versus Plastic

July 1, 2001
It's time again to join the battle of numbers between these two packaging alternatives.

Paper Versus Plastic

Right, it’s time for the annual paper-versus-plastic column. For a while, I thought I might get away without having to write it this year. Not so.

I received a press release from a company citing the benefits of plastic, or, more accurately, polyethylene pillows, over paper dunnage. Here are some of the numbers, none of which I can attest to:

• To create the same protection as polyethylene pillows requires six times more paper by weight, and six times more volume.

• To make one ton of paper takes 36 times more electricity, and 12 times more steam, than what is required to make one ton of polyethylene.

Using an abstract formula, the author concluded that it takes 180 times more electricity and 60 times more steam to create enough paper to provide the same amount of protection as polyethylene pillows.

I’m going to side-step the basic issue here — which is better, paper or plastic — because it usually boils down to whose dog is cutest. But it got me thinking about recycling here and abroad, something I’ve not heard much about of late. Reviewing some current legislation and other activities, it seems that transport packaging (into which I lump pallets and containers) continues to be an easy target. Politicians continue to make the usual appeals to constituents’ sense of good citizenship, though not as strongly as in an election year. Unfortunately, much current legislation is designed for the feel-good factor, not the benefit of the packaging or material handling industries.

It’s easy to be negative on environmental issues, so let’s look at the positive side. According to the American Forest and Paper Association, 45 percent of all paper used in America was recovered for recycling in 1999. That piles up to 47.3 million tons. High-density polyethylene recycling continues to hit about 14 percent a year.

Expanded polystyrene (EPS), a common dunnage material, continues to battle paper for the lion’s share of the void-fill market. EPS argues that, because of its light weight, an EPS container is only one-sixth the weight of a comparable cardboard container.

Using life cycle analysis to asses the overall impact on the environment of various materials is tough, at best, and nearly impossible. Here’s some information from reports I’ve seen. Although EPS is made from oil (a non-renewable resource), it comprises approximately 98 percent air. And the oil it consumes is a fraction of one percent of its volume.

Some folks in New Zealand have gone to the trouble of attempting a life cycle analysis of paper versus EPS, using a disposable cup as their example. I think we can extrapolate the figures and apply the results to packaging dunnage. In terms of resource use, it’s no surprise that the EPS cup that weighs two grams beats the uncoated paper cup that weighs eight grams.

As it turns out, all that EPS going into the landfill (about one-tenth of one percent of the total waste stream) is having a beneficial impact. It’s improving the aeration and contributing to faster degradation of organic material.

A recent study by the Association of Plastics Manufacturers in Europe indicates that while a little recycling is good, a lot might not be. Its study demonstrates that going above 15 percent recycling for plastics shows a deteriorating benefit in terms of cost of recovery.

Oh, my! What to do? Since it’s a jungle out there, maybe we best adhere to jungle rules. Rule No. 1: Good business is about minimizing the loss of non-renewable resources while striving for sustainability.

Clyde E. Witt

executive editor

[email protected]

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