The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that packaging makes up one-third of all household waste. Ironically, much of the packaging we discard is actually recyclable. We often discard paper products, even though we know they are recyclable. And we throw away plastic packaging all the time that we aren’t even aware is recyclable!

In the second in our three-part look at packaging, we’ll take a look at the environmental impact of both cardboard and plastic packaging options. Both have their pros and cons, but which is best?

packaging - boxesPaper…

If you were to conduct a survey asking the general population which is more environmentally friendly, paper or plastic, the overwhelming response would be paper. Consumers continue to see plastic as non-recyclable, non-environmentally friendly. And they see paper-based packaging as a recyclable option that’s good for the environment. 

However, contrary to popular belief, cardboard, especially when used for shipping, isn’t the greenest option!

When considered over the entire life of the packaging, paper and cardboard are responsible for far more greenhouse gases than plastic. Paper is manufactured from renewable materials, but it takes substantial amounts of energy to make. Manufacturing paper and cardboard is one of the top five largest industrial uses of energy on the planet. In addition, the paper production process consumes three times more water than plastic and results in fifty times more water pollutants.

Packaging - Plastic…or Plastic?

By contrast, the production and recycling of plastic is not as energy-intensive and is not as significant a cause of CO2 pollution as paper. A lot of plastic, including that used in poly mailers, is made from a byproduct of natural gas called ethane. Ethane is typically burned off during the production of natural gas and enters the atmosphere as pollution. But by using this ethane instead to make plastics, it isn’t released into the atmosphere. Conversely, many paper and cardboard products end up in landfills where they rot and create the greenhouse gas methane.

Plastic, while better for the environment in terms of its manufacture, is not as easily recycled as cardboard. That’s because most plastics are made from oil. In fact, in 2015 only 20% of global plastic waste was recycled. and of the plastic waste produced between 1950 and 2015, only 9% was recycled. However, in response to consumer concerns, the plastic industry has acted to lessen the material’s environmental impact. 

Plastics are now being produced that are made from 100% recycled material, or from virgin materials that can be recycled and made into new plastics.

The Answer? It’s Not One-Size-Fits-All

Many e-commerce businesses are making the switch to plastic mailers instead of cardboard boxes. That’s because in many cases, plastic saves them money while at the same time being better for the environment.

Even so, there are still decisions to be made. When considering the environmental impact of packaging, here are the questions you need to ask:

Are the raw materials used to make the packaging renewable?

  • Fast-growing, Renewable pine trees provide the primary raw material used to make paper and corrugated cardboard.
  • Many plastics are made directly from non-renewable fossil fuels, but more and more plastic mailers used for shipping materials are being made from a significant amount of recycled products.

How much energy is needed to create the package?

  • Paper products take substantial amounts of energy to make. Making paper and cardboard is one of the top 5 largest industrial uses of energy on the planet.
  • A plastic bubble mailer takes 23 times less energy to make than a corrugated box

How much water is consumed in the production of the package?

  • Recycled paper production uses up to 50% less water than virgin paper.
  • Plastic production uses just one-third the amount of water as paper production.

What pollution is created?

  • Paper and cardboard are responsible for far more greenhouse gases than their plastic equivalents. Making a corrugated box produces 6 times more CO2 than making a bubble mailer. The paper production process results in 50 times more water pollutants than the production of plastic.
  • The manufacture of plastic is not a significant cause of CO2 pollution compared to paper. Ethane, a byproduct of natural gas production, is used to make plastics instead of being burned and released into the atmosphere.

How much storage space do they require?

  • Flattened cardboard boxes take up much more space than empty poly mailers and therefore cost more to store.
  • A 48” x 48” pallet can hold 30,000 poly mailers versus just 4,800 kraft mailers.

What costs are incurred and resources used to ship the items?

  • Boxes work well when each package that goes out the door has very different contents. With the right sized shipping boxes, your fulfillment team can use the same packaging for each order. However, boxes are the most expensive shipping option as you will be charged on the dimensions of the box as well as its weight. Choosing the smallest box possible will cut down on additional shipping fees. Boxes are also labor-intensive to assemble, pack and seal.
  • Plastic mailers are very lightweight and do not require void fill to eliminate empty spaces, therefore can significantly reduce shipping costs for businesses and cut down on the energy required to deliver the package to the consumer.  They are also very easy and quick to package the products being sent to consumers.
packaging - recycle

Recycling used packaging helps protect the environment

Can they be recycled after use?

  • Yes, most paper products can be recycled.
  • 100% polyethylene mailers can be recycled at the same drop-off collection points that recycle plastic grocery bags.

Can they be used multiple times?

  • Cardboard boxes can be used over and over until they are no longer stable due to wear and tear.
  • Poly mailers tend to be discarded after one use as their tamper-proof seals cannot be reused. However, dual peel-and-seal mailers are available allowing for them to be used a second time, or for returns if necessary.

Can they be customized?

  • Because of its paper surface, corrugated cardboard can easily be custom branded. Paperboard boxes allow you to create an unboxing experience that can’t be replicated with a plastic mailer.
  • Poly mailers can be difficult to print on due to their soft nature, therefore quality can’t be assured.

What level of protection do they provide?

  • Shipping boxes are stronger and offer more protection than a cushioned mailer, especially when custom inserts or void fill are added.
  • Polymailers provide ample protection for soft, non-fragile items, and bubble mailers can be used when an added layer of protection is needed. However, mailers cannot compare to boxes when protection is paramount.

In the end, businesses must increase efforts at choosing packaging that is good for the environment because consumers are demanding it. Those who have transitioned away from boxes have found savings in labor costs, shipping costs, and per package handling costs.

Need help finding the ideal packaging for your products? Simple Global’s got your back. Contact us today for a quote!