Eco-Logic: Is Paper More Eco-friendly than Plastic?

Make the best choice for the environment.


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"It’s not easy being green,” according to Kermit the Frog. So many choices, so many voices.

When it comes to consumer products, few are environmentally perfect. Each has qualities, pro and con, that make it either an eco-plus or an eco-bust.

This is particularly true when it comes to the age-old debate on paper vs. plastic. You most likely made up your mind years ago on the correct green way to go, so your answer to the checker at the supermarket is routine by now. But deep down inside you may still question whether or not you’re right. Choosing plastic may help save a tree, but selecting paper may keep landfills to a minimum.

For most of us, our choice is based on an either-or approach adopted when we first became environmentally aware. But the 1990s have shown the answer to be far more complex. The real concern is not plastic vs. paper so much as it is the problems created by the huge amount of solid waste both these common household materials contribute to the environment. The imperative has become to stop putting so much of either material into landfills and incinerators. Recycling minimizes waste.

Therefore, your number one correct response at the supermarket is to give the clerk a cloth bag of your own for your groceries—a bag you can reuse over and over. The paper bag your supermarket offers is probably not a good choice because it’s made of virgin paper. Just as the plastic bag is molded from virgin resin. Recycled paper? Good. Recycled plastic. Good. Recyclable cloth bags? Best of all.

Picnic Picks

For that perfect summer picnic, should you opt for paper or plastic containers? For the sake of accuracy, plastic hot-beverage cups are not made of Styro­foam, the trade name for a Dow Chem­i­cal insulation construction material; they are made of foamed polystyrene. These items are not currently recyclable, so rinse and reuse them. If you choose paper cups, dispose of them in a compost heap where they will biodegrade. Should you opt for paper or plastic plates for your summer picnic? If you choose paper plates, you also should dispose of them in a compost heap; if plastic is your choice, rinse and reuse them. Or buy a picnic basket and use your own household china and flatware, which you can rinse and reuse.

Landfill Litter

Papermaking pollutes water, releases dioxin, contributes to acid rain, and destroys trees. Most trees used to make paper are grown with non-renewable ­fossil-fuel fertilizers, and paper can take a very long time to degrade in landfills.

Plastic is a byproduct of petroleum and natural gas, and its manufacture depletes oil reserves—although all the plastic produced comes from a very small percentage of the oil produced; its processing emits pollutants; and because it’s inorganic, it ­doesn’t degrade in landfills. Plastic is truly the world’s most ­visible form of litter.

Paper now accounts for approximately 37 percent of municipal solid waste. Of all the paper produced today, close to 40 percent is being recycled, primarily newsprint into new newsprint, cereal boxes, books, insulating materials, printing/writing paper, tissue, egg cartons, and animal ­bedding. In 1995, the recovery of office paper was more than double the 1990 recovery—a comforting thought when you consider the avalanche of waste paper generated by high-tech offices. In addition, last year 70 percent of all corrugated cardboard boxes were recovered for recycling, as were 68 percent of all paper containers and packaging.

Plastics account for 11 percent of municipal solid waste. Because literally thousands of different plastics cannot be melted together—their molecules don’t mix—sorting is a major obstacle to plastics recycling. However, the handling and reclaiming of post-consumer plastics is nearly six times greater now than it was ten years ago, according to the American Plastics Council.

The properties of PET (polyethylene terephthalate) soda bottles and HDPE (high-density polyethylene) bottles and containers make them good candidates for recycling into fibers, carpet, and lumber. Some polystyrene products also are being recovered for similar uses. But with a very few exceptions, such as recycling computer housings into roof shingles, the recycling of non-packaging plastic is a challenge for the future.

However, reports the Polystyrene Packaging Council, polystyrene packaging—including cups, plates, bowls, clam­shells, meat trays, egg cartons, yogurt and cottage-cheese containers, and cutlery—accounts for less than one percent of solid waste in the United States. And these products have been source-reduced 9 ­percent since 1974, which means that 9 percent less polystyrene is used today to manufacture the same goods.

Biodegradable plastics, which are ­primarily cornstarch based, have been marketed with mixed results in the past decade for products ranging from grocery bags to golf tees. To replace the pervasive packing “peanuts” that love to cling, ­ Eco-Foam—a new loosefill from National Starch and Chemical Company—is touted as “compostable, reusable, and biodegradable and better for the environment than plastic peanuts.” And it’s easier to use than non-recyclable crumpled paper.

With packaging, the issue is not so much what it is made of as how much it weighs. The use for food protection of paper, foils, and plastic or plastic films—singly or in combination—should be encouraged as replacements for heavier storage containers. More importantly, you should continue to buy concentrates and refills, large sizes, and products with less and thinner packaging to reinforce manufacturers’ efforts to produce green products. We may say we want environmentally friendly products, but at the same time we may buy more convenience products like microwavable foods and tamper-resistant bottles that require elaborate packaging, which, in turn, generates more waste.

Remember the uproar over disposable vs. cloth diapers in the late 1980s? Over­night it seemed that disposable diapers became ecologically unsound. Dis­pos­ables produce four times as much trash in landfills, noted one critic. But, another critic noted, over the course of a year ­disposable diapers consume half as much energy as cloth ones, use one-quarter as much water, and generate one-seventh the water pollution.

Paper or plastic? Your choice, and not an easy one.

Judy Bucher is an award-winning writer and editor whose work has appeared in Redbook, Injection Molding Magazine, Plastics World, and Modern Plastics Encyclopaedia.