Paper vs. plastic

February 4, 2011

Happy Friday!

Today’s post is going to be a lot. And it’s about one of my most favorite concepts: plastic vs. paper dun dun dunnnn.

This whole paper plastic thing started last week, when someone from one of my Linkedin groups reached out to me with some questions about sustainable packaging. He is a package designer for an outdoors company and wanted to know what I thought of the “sustainability” of 100% recycled paper packaging vs. that of FSC-certified fiber. While on the phone he explained that his company started on the journey towards sustainable packaging two years ago and have almost entirely eliminated plastic from their product line. When I asked why he said because the process of manufacturing resin for plastic packaging releases a lot of pollutants in the air, consumes a lot of energy, and so forth. I began telling him how contrary to popular belief, the pulp and paper industry is the largest industrial consumer of water in America (though I am currently investigating this assumption conveyed via US EPA’s TRI Report) AND how in the process of converting pulp to paper, a lot of energy is needed and a lot of things are omitted into the surrounding ecosystems. Please understand, of course, that these assumptions are contingent on the available public data that the Pulp and Paper sector is required to report to the US EPA; therefore, it is not necessarily a wholistic representation of the entire industry, just the average, I believe, but again I am further investigating this. Because I wanted to support these claims, I sent him an array of emails, which attempts to illustrate how I understand “sustainability” as it pertains to packaging materials from a research-based analysis. Check em out!

Email 1

Hey!

The point of this email is to provide you with some research on paper vs. plastic in the context of sustainability. Hurray!

The first attached document, titled (title has been removed for consideration of publisher) is provided via an NGO organization that Dordan is a member of.

This document discusses, in great detail, all the environmental inputs and outputs of manufacturing resin for packaging applications. Nine resin profiles are discussed and it is interesting to note that each resin has an extremely unique environmental profile, depending on its chemical composition and synthesis process. If you are interested in the life cycle impacts of plastic for packaging in the context of sustainability, I urge you to read this.

This information can be found via the Franklin Associates LCI study titled, “Cradle-to-Gate Life Cycle Inventory (LCI) of Nine Plastics Resins and Four Polyurethane Precursors.” Download it here.

Next, the document titled (title has been removed for consideration for publisher) is the same type of document about fiber-based packaging materials. Like the plastic environmental briefs, it provides a holistic representation of the entire life cycle of manufacturing packaging from pulp in the context of sustainability. Again, I urge you to read it—and I guarantee you will be surprised! I will provide you with a list of organizations who provided the data for the report in the very near future so you can get your hands on some hard numbers.

AND, if you want to skip all the technicalities and just get an overview of the classic paper vs. plastic debate, follow the link below and down load The Facts about fossil fuel consumption and green house gas emissions. Please note that this research does not discuss end of life management, which is an important component to the overall “sustainability” of a packaging material. AND, I wrote this almost two years ago, so the info may need a refresher– I will put that on my list of things to do.

http://www.dordan.com/sustainability_the_facts.shtml

The Facts documents draw all of their data from the attached technical briefs, which reference the Department of Energy, the US EPA, and others. For the full citation for each graft/data point, consult the footnotes below the text.

The last attached document is a <a href="<a href="plasticvspaper“>”>brochure advertising the Freedonia Group’s most recently published market research report comparing the projected markets of paper vs. plastic for 2014 and 2019. This is just a tiny bit of information that I believe illustrates how plastic will always be a viable packaging material for its versatility and lightweight nature.

I still have more! Get excited!

You can buy the reports here

Email 2:

Hello again!

Ok the purpose of this email is to try and illustrate in real time what the environmental technical briefs convey in regard to the sustainability of paper vs. plastic.

Again, COMPASS is the SPC’s life cycle based environmental packaging modeling software that allows users to quantify the environmental impacts of different packaging materials in the design phase. For more information on COMPASS visit https://www.design-compass.org/about.gsp.

I performed four COMPASS case studies that I believe speaks to my point that plastic is a strong packaging material choice in the context of packaging material sustainability. As this information shows, and I would argue is the underlying framework for understanding any discussion on “sustainability”, is that there is no “silver bullet” and each material has its advantages and drawbacks in the context of its impact on the environment throughout its life cycle.

The first attached document titled “<a href="25 grams 100% Recycled Folding Boxboard vs. 25 grams PET“>25 grams 100% Recycled Folding Boxboard vs. 25 grams PET” is the data output from the first COMPASS case study. Basically I entered in the same packaging weight for the paper and plastic (25 grams), chose the correct converting process i.e. thermoforming or carton making, selected the desired material (I chose PET as an example; each plastic is different), and tada! What the bar graphs illustrate is the assumed life cycle impacts of this amount of specific material type. The three phases considered in this LCA, which are indicated via a “tick” through the bar graph are: manufacture, conversion, and end of life. Because we are speaking conceptually, I didn’t feel the need to input information in regard to the distribution of the packaging material from the point of production through fulfillment.

I chose 100% Recycled Folding Boxboard because I thought it would be a good representation of your current packaging material’s impacts.

The second attached document titled “<a href="96 grams 100% Recycled Folding Boxboard vs. 36 grams PET“>96 grams 100% Recycled Folding Boxboard vs. 36 grams PET” is the data output from the second COMPASS case study. Basically what I tried to do was present a more “real life” situation because plastic weighs less than paper generally speaking. For instance, it takes less plastic to package the same product when compared with a paper medium and therefore the impacts throughout the package’s life cycle are dramatically different due to this weight differentiation. The reason I used the weights I did (96 grams paper vs. 36 grams PET) is because I had performed a similar COMPASS case study previously where I actually had two packages for the same product in paper and plastic, which allowed me to weigh them in real time and input into the COMPASS software. Therefore, I used the same weight distribution for your COMPASS case study in order to present the real life cycle impacts of a product packaged in paper vs. plastic.

If you are interested in further validating this approach, visit the link below that will take you to our third-party verified listing in greenerpackage.com’s database for sustainable materials/suppliers.
http://www.greenerpackage.com/database/converted_packages/dordan_manufacturing_inc/cs-002_clamshell_package

Have I completely confused you?

I have several more emails for you…

Email 3:

Hey,

In my opinion, the end of life management of packaging materials is crucial to its overall “sustainability.” Because most packaging is intended for single use, it is important to find a way to recover these materials to remanufacture into second generation products or packaging.

There is a lot of confusion over recycling. I have spent a considerable amount of time trying to figure out why some packaging materials, like PET bottles, are recycled, while others, like PET thermoforms, generally are not. This is how I believe you found me—I have been getting some good industry exposure due to my work on recycling clamshells, which is why I have been invited to speak at Sustainability in Packaging. Anyway, attached is my recycling report, which outlines the economics dictating recycling in America. I hope you will understand if for an analogy to recycling packaging materials in general, as even within the paper recovery stream, TONS of packaging is land filled each year.

And, to shatter more myths about paper vs. plastic, check out the attached information from the US EPA titled “<a href="msw2008data“>msw2008data.” This represents what type of materials and how much was recycled in America in 2008. If you scroll to page 22 (Table 20), you will see what types of paper and plastic products were recovered from the MSW stream. In the paper category, for the sections titled “Other Paperboard Packaging”/”Other Paper Packaging,” there is no recovery data (neg.), which means that this types of packaging materials are not recycled. Crazy, right?!? Feel free to peruse the document to get a better handle on the realities of recycling in America.

Let’s chat soon after you have had a chance to digest all this information. I will try you sometime next week in the office.

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