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Shopping showdown — what's greener, plastic or paper?

April 24, 2024

Paper packaging is more environmentally friendly than plastic, right? But concealed within this deceptively simple choice are chemical contaminants, marketing tricks and greenwashing.

Fruit packaged in plastic or arranged in cardboard boxes
About two-thirds of all plastics produced are used in packaging, according to the UN Environment Program — and much of that ends up in landfillsImage: picture alliance / Bildagentur-online/Hermes Images

A visit to the supermarket very often means being faced with a choice. Not only in terms of products, but packaging. Seemingly identical fruits and vegetables might be wrapped by turns in cardboard or plastic. It would be easy to think that paper is better for the environment. But is it really?

Tatiana Sokolova, an associate professor at the Tilburg School of Economics and Management in the Netherlands, tested perceptions of environmental friendliness in packaging. Her 2023 study found that paper often had a much better reputation — even though it doesn't necessarily always deserve it.

Sokolova found consumers saw "paper packaging as fundamentally good. And it's absolutely true that at the recycling stage, paper is easier to recycle compared to plastic. That doesn't mean, though, that paper doesn't carry any environmental costs."

The pulp and paper sector accounted for slightly under 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions from industry in 2022, according to the International Energy Agency — a figure that's projected to increase by 2030. And that's not even considering the effects of deforestation.

It's not just production. Sokolova pointed out that paper packaging is generally heavier than plastic, meaning trucks belch out more emissions to ship paper-wrapped products to stores. And often, she said, paper packaging is actually lined with plastic.

"The most famous example is the paper cup," she said. "On average, [people] think that they're pretty harmless for the environment. But of course, for paper to hold liquid, and especially a hot liquid, it has to be lined with plastic. So, it's very difficult to recycle."

Most of the world's plastic isn't recycled

The production of plastic, made from fossil fuels like crude oil, generates around 3.5% of the global total of greenhouse gas emissions. And less than 10% of the more than 400 million metric tons of plastic produced every year is recycled.

More often than not, plastic waste from Europe and the United States is shipped off to countries like Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Indonesia in the Global South.

Why companies struggle with repackaging and recycling

Even when facilities are in place to recycle both paper and plastic, it's not so easy.

"Cardboard tends to be more recyclable, simply because there are the facilities to recycle cardboard in more places," said Llorenc Mila i Canals, head of Life Cycle Initiative with the UN Environment Program. "Whereas, particularly for many types of plastics, it's not just one material — we have many different polymers, [and] many of them are not recycled almost anywhere."

Polypropylene, polystyrene, polyethylene — these and other types of plastics are chemically different materials and have their own recycling processes, said Bethanie Carney Almroth, a professor of ecotoxicology and environmental sciences at University of Gothenburg in Sweden.

She said one of the most common recycling methods involves rinsing the plastic, chipping it into tiny flakes and then melting it down to create new plastic pellets.

"But what you have then is these materials coming in from lots of different sources, containing different mixtures of chemicals, [and] they might have been contaminated with chemicals during their use," she added.

Greenwashing on a grand scale?

Analyzing recycled plastic in the Global South, Carney Almroth and her colleagues found not only a mix of chemicals from different plastics, but also other, potentially dangerous, contaminants.

"Things like pesticides and pharmaceuticals and food additives — these are not chemicals that should be in the plastics, and these are definitely not chemicals that should be used in recycled plastic food packaging materials," she said.

Are there environmentally friendly alternatives?

Paper can be made from trees that have been grown in a responsible way, harvested in forests that are managed and replanted in a way that benefits the environment. Or it can be entirely produced from recycled content, rather than virgin material.

But paper — and plastic — can't be recycled indefinitely, and sometimes the resulting product is of a much lower quality than the original, tainted with impurities like inks or chemical contaminants.

Plastics produced from corn, sugar or wood residue are also an attractive alternative. Since they're not made with fossil fuels, like regular plastics, they typically have a smaller carbon footprint. But they're not without problems.

"The bioplastic industry would like people to see this as the green alternative, as the solution to plastics pollution," said Almroth. "But the problem that's sometimes ignored or downplayed is that these plastics also contain chemicals."

She said some of these potentially toxic chemicals are added during the production process to stabilize the plastic or give it other desired qualities. Others may appear as contaminants, or form during the production process.

"We don't know what they are, because there's very few requirements on transparency and reporting," she said, adding that the same could be said of paper packaging.

Bioplastics have other drawbacks which are often overlooked in the glow of what critics have called greenwashing. Those include the sourcing of the raw materials like corn or sugar, and related issues like deforestation, land use and food security, as crops destined for bioplastics take over land that could instead be used to feed people.

Shift from recycle to reuse

With so many factors to consider, it's not easy for experts to definitively say that paper is better than plastic or vice versa. But that perplexing choice is only masking the overarching issue, said Sokolova: our out-of-control throwaway culture.

"Plastics, because they are so cheap, are used a lot in the single-use products. They're not designed to be reusable," she said.

Instead of worrying about the choice between paper or plastic, the experts suggest we'd be better off choosing reusable packaging, like glass bottles, or ideally just using less of everything in the first place.

"There's always going to be trade-offs," said the UN's Llorenc Mila i Canals — whether it's on greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity, microplastic pollution, water usage or countless other factors. "The really important choice is to move away from single-use products and going into reusable ones. Or to not using products at all, if you can avoid it."

And, said Mila i Canals, that includes avoiding overpackaged fruit at the supermarket. "Fruits already come very nicely packed by nature."

Edited by: Jennifer Collins

Martin Kuebler adapted this story from an episode of DW's Living Planet podcast. Listen to the audio version here.


Paper meets plastic: The perceived environmental friendliness of product packaging. Tilburg University, October 2023: 

Paper cups are just as toxic as plastic cups. University of Gothenburg, August 25, 2023: 

Sarah Steffen Sarah works as radio host and producer, reporter and editor.