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  • Abhay Bhagwat

In the paper versus plastic debate - is the answer clean cut?

Most people believe paper is better in all respects than plastic for the environment. They also think it is always cheaper than plastic. As such, many assume that when it comes to environmental best practices, paper wins, and plastic needs to be avoided.

The environmental impact of plastic waste is well-known globally. Efforts to reduce the use of plastic and improve recycling are seen as the principal strategies to protect the environment. But sometimes when we reduce our use of plastic we increase the use of paper and board. But the paper industry has negative effects on the environment too, so much so that sometimes, replacing plastic with paper can be not only more costly, but not entirely environment-friendly.

Paper Pollutants

The 2010 legislation in the UK made it mandatory for pulp and paper mills to submit data to the Pollution Inventory. The gases recorded as released from paper mills include methane, chloroform, chlorine dioxide, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitric oxide, formaldehyde as well as particulate matter. While the waste water from paper mills are liable to have alcohols, acids, cadmium, chloroform, defoamers, formaldehyde, ammonia and heavy metals like mercury. These pollutants are not to be ignored just because trees are renewable on timescales within our lifetimes.

Paper Costs

As of 2022, the rise and rise of e-commerce which requires vast quantities of paperboard packaging has led to a massive demand for this material. This has led to a large increase in the cost of paper and board. Additional capacity will take several years to materialize. As such, it looks like high prices are here to stay and might even rise further.

Further Comparisons



Renewability of raw material

Made from oil, non-renewable.

Made from trees, fully renewable, as long as the forests and the logging process are carefully and rigorously managed.

Impact of raw material on the environment

If spillage occurs it is a pollutant.

​Trees absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen, positive for the environment.

Impact of chemical wastes from production in water and air

Can be highly polluting unless careful measures are in place to keep the water and air around the factories clean before release.

​Can be highly polluting unless careful measures are in place to keep the water and air around the mills clean before release.

Requirement for water in making new

Around 180 litres of water to produce 1 kg of plastic

Around 25 litres of water per kg of paper

Requirement for energy in making new

70 megajoules per kg of plastic

45 megajoules per kg of paper

Requirement for energy in recycling

79 megajoules per kg of plastic = about 112% of the energy used to make paper from virgin wood pulp

27 megajoules per kg of paper

= about 60% of the energy used to make paper from virgin wood pulp.

Space taken in landfill sites

Depends on type and form, typically more compact volume per weight.

​Uses more space at landfill when first deposited.

Market Cost

Linked to oil prices. Has risen accordingly but there is better balance between demand and supply.

Has risen sharply and is likely to increase further due to poor balance between demand and supply in the near term.

While impacts per kilogram are higher for plastic, less plastic weight is required than paper as plastic is stronger and has high barrier properties.

What can be done?

Let’s look at a real-life example. In the FMCG industry, it has long been standard to pack bottles for example in corrugated board boxes with 6 sides, fully closed. At PFTF we have calculated that where the primary packs (e.g bottles) are strong enough, moving from 6-sided boxes to trays (5 sided,shorter), we can reduce the quantity of paperboard significantly. This reduces costs and the associated environmental impact. This model however does require groups of bottles to be shrink-wrapped prior to placement in the trays. This might sound like the wrong way to go but at 50 microns the plastic shrink-film actually constitutes very little plastic relative to the significant reduction in paperboard. Overall this solution works out not only significantly cheaper, but emits less CO2 overall. Given that the shrink film can be made from recycled plastic and is in turn recyclable, the aggregate environmental impact is lower.

This can seem counter intuitive, since paper has so long been pushed as the answer to the environmental challenges posed by plastic. But in truth, it’s not that simple. The answer can change from case-to-case.

If you’d like a consultation to see how we can help you optimise your packaging for cost and environmental impact, while maintaining brand image for maximum profits, be in touch for an initial consultation. We don’t charge for an initial consultation.

Image Copyright Wood Mackenzie

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