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Paper, Plastic or Package Waste: Breaking Down the E-Shopper’s Rubbish

As online shopping increasingly becomes a standard practice around the world,  businesses are facing a bit of a conundrum when it comes to packaging.

Plastic-covered online orders are lighter and more flexible than cardboard boxes, making it easier to stock delivery trucks and vans. In the process, these orders should be able to use just enough plastic needed without excess. Sometimes they do, and sometimes there’s plastic overkill.

Plastic use in the 1960s, when it was still a novelty, was nowhere near as commonly used as it is today.

Nowadays, humans dump more than 5 trillion pieces of debris into the ocean, and a quarter of that waste is single-use plastic. For environmentally friendly consumers, these numbers are mind-boggling.

So it’s no surprise that brick-and-mortar stores that still use single-use plastic bags and online merchants that mail packages in non-recyclable plastic have become a source of contempt. And Amazon is taking most of the blame. But the correct source of finger-pointing may lie somewhere between both consumers and businesses.


Plastic can be recycled—if you know where to go

Ninety-one percent of plastic is never recycled, and part of the problem is plastic is commonly believed as unable to recycle.

The average condo and/or apartment complex pushes recycling for newspapers, cardboard boxes, milk cartons, metal cans and glass jars. Meanwhile, plastic bags and plastic food containers are often crossed out on recycle bin labels. (Part of the reason for this is people don’t always clean plastic containers properly, and retailers don’t usually offer much documentation to remind them to do so.)

But even if plastic recycling was encouraged more often by retailers, how likely is it that the average consumer knows the difference between all those plastic number codes?

  • number 1 polyethylene terephthalate (PET) or (PETE) plastic
  • number 2 high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic
  • number 3 polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and vinyl (V) plastic
  • number 4 low density polyethylene (LDPE) plastic
  • number 5 polypropylene (PP) plastic
  • number 6 polystyrene (PS) plastic
  • number 7 polycarbonate and polylactic acid (PLA), which is made from plants and is carbon neutral, also falls into this category


Some of these plastic options are accepted in curbside programs after the products are used (ex. shampoo bottles, detergent containers, motor oil bottles, yogurt and butter tubs).

But outside of numbers 1 and 2, consumers would have to do some extra digging with their local waste management companies or municipality website for specific drop-off instructions. And if third-party manufacturers and store brand products are more likely to use plastics 3-7 than 1-2, customers have to do more footwork.

And it’s not just the plastic bottles that are the problem. Flimsy one-use plastic bags require an extra trip to the grocery store to drop off. (Companies like Target and Whole Foods Market give monetary discounts when consumers use their own shopping bags.)

But for online consumers who get packages with lots of Styrofoam, what are they supposed to do with that? Other companies can use it, but consumers usually can’t. That leftover package Styrofoam can be turned into carry-out containers, insulation, egg cartons and light switch plates, but it’s often not accepted by curbside pickups.

So, when online stores and manufacturing companies use nonrecyclable packaging products, the customer is stuck with either figuring out how to reuse it or adding to tons of waste already in oceans and landfills.



Should cardboard always win?

The Confederation of Paper Industries co-signs paper and cardboard as a “uniquely renewable, recyclable and reusable resource” and “strong and flexible enough to keep goods safe while in transit, making it the perfect packaging material.” And even when taking into account the energy used to make paper and cardboard, the materials generated versus those recycled are still pretty reasonable.

In 1960, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, 29,990 thousands of tons of paper and cardboard were generated. By 2015, that number skyrocketed up to 68,080 thousands of tons. And while that might sound like a lot, 5,080 thousands of tons (16.9 percent) of the paper waste in 1960 was recycled. By 2015, customers were a bit more savvy about recycling and 45,320 thousands of tons (66.6 percent) of paper waste was recycled. Curbside recycling and other easily reachable recycling options helped.

Meanwhile, plastic did not do so well. In the 1960s, generation was 360 thousands of tons. By 2015, plastic generation shot up to 34,500. And recycling by 2015 still hadn’t hit 10 percent (highest percentage was 9.1 percent).

So obviously cardboard should win over plastic film packaging, right? Not necessarily, and Business Insider is trying to make the counterargument that sometimes plastic still makes more sense for smaller packages. Additionally, businesses like Kohl’s, and grocery stores such as Target, Food 4 Less and Mariano’s all have drop-off spots for plastic film regardless of whether curbside recycling programs take them.

Additionally, bubble wrap brought in the era of air freight, and lightweight plastic packages require less gas for deliveries. And as mentioned above, plastic-covered packages take up less room, which means more packages can be stocked in delivery vans and trucks. In turn, those one-day deliveries and two-day deliveries become easier to manage than paper. Amazon Prime members are fully aware of this already if they’ve ever gotten a Whole Foods Market order separated into several paper bags as opposed to one big plastic bag that could have probably carried at least half the items in less time for the delivery person and consumer.


So, final answer: paper or plastic?

In an ideal world, municipal companies could make it easier for everybody. If more recycling options were available in people’s multi-units and houses, then plastic waste could potentially be recycled with the same level of enthusiasm as paper and cardboard. However, this would also require hiring more workers to sort and empty these items, and consumers to make sure to sort their items correctly.

Recycling companies with plastics 1 and 2 often end up with a ruined batch of recyclables simply because trash (i.e. greasy pizza boxes, or plastic containers with liquid or food inside) was dumped inside of recycling bins, too. If businesses can prioritize recyclable plastic (and paper) items in the first place, it would make it easier for consumers to recycle.

And if consumers would actually follow through on correct sorting, it would make it easier for recycling companies. But the entire process, whether paper or plastic, has to be a triangular team-building project with all on board before plastic recycling can match up with paper recycling. If all three are in alignment, then reducing, reusing and recycling should run much smoother.