Nowadays even the least green-conscious of us are aware that plastic is environmentally unfriendly even though it is cost-effective. Although plastic may be cost-effective at the checkout, it is environmentally expensive in the long term. To inform the paper vs plastic packaging debate, there are a number of aspects to consider. Among the important discussions are environmental friendliness, functionality, and cost.

Paper vs Plastic Packaging

Environmental Friendliness

It would seem intuitive that paper, being biodegradable, is more environmentally friendly. However, most paper packaging has a plastic lining or coating which precludes it from being able to recycle. This results in up to 26 percent of the contents of landfills being actually paper, which releases toxins as it degrades. That being said, if produced from truly natural, completely recyclable resources, you can easily recycle paper.

Plastics producers are increasingly under pressure to convert from single-use packaging to packaging that can be reused or at least recycled. However, the latter is less likely because the chemicals and resources plastic manufacturers use do not biodegrade. In turn, this releases toxic chemicals as the plastic rots. To offset the environmental impact of plastic, producers are looking into how the production process can reduce their environmental footprint. Solar power and recycling water are a few of the examples they are exploring.


Apart from being reusable, paper and cardboard are easy to print on, and store. They also come in different sizes, thicknesses, and strengths, making them even more flexible. However, their durability is somewhat limited though without a plastic coating.

Plastic too is quite versatile, and also comes in different shapes and strengths. Plastic is ideal for containing and storing dry goods, hot and cold foods, as well as liquids. Furthermore, plastic is extremely durable. The functionality and lower cost of plastic are what make this packaging material so appealing.


One less appreciated fact about product and food packaging is the cost it adds. For example, when we question why the price of chicken has gone up, we think more about farmers than the cost of packaging. After all, how much can a little bit of plastic wrap cost? The cost of packaging affects a product at every link in the supply chain. Paper is also heavier than plastic so it costs more to ship. The paper industry is increasingly looking to use renewable energy sources and exploring how many times paper can actually be recycled, which will hopefully help bring packaging prices down.

Plastic is much cheaper to produce, lighter, and less expensive to ship than paper. However, the problem with plastic is the lack of environmental friendliness. In some parts of the world, governments have begun imposing taxes on plastic, while others have banned single-use plastics. Some countries have gone as far as to ban plastic packaging altogether. Do you think this is a good idea?

Additional Reading: Containers and Packaging: Product-Specific Data – United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

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