Packaging is one of the most easily recognized sources of pollution. It is not surprising, considering that most of the trash we usually see out in the streets are discarded wrappers, bags, containers, and other forms of packaging. The choice of packaging that we use can significantly change our environmental impact, and there are only three standard options for packaging materials: paper, plastics, and cloth.
However, you need to consider many factors in assessing the environmental impact of any given option. How likely will the material biodegrade, given the typical conditions it will be exposed to during disposal? How does the supply chain of the material affect the environment? Can the material be reused, or does it degrade too easily? You need to consider these questions when analyzing the impact of packaging materials, and this article will shed some light regarding these considerations.
Paper is made from cellulose, a biodegradable fiber obtained from wood that gives paper its distinctively soft yet strong composition. As its raw materials are easily obtainable, the paper is widely used for wrappers and other forms of packaging.
“While you may not be purchasing printed books from the business, if you buy other goods, they arrive packaged in paper. That has a big economic and environmental impact,” writes Richard Maxwell, Ph.D. and Toby Miller, Ph.D.
As long as the wood used in pulp and paper manufacturing is sourced sustainably, there is no risk of supply running out anytime soon. Also, a paper is completely biodegradable in optimal conditions, reducing the risk of waste accumulation.
However, the biodegradability of paper is reduced when it is buried deep in landfills, where sunlight and air cannot penetrate the deeper layers. It can take nearly decades for a paper to biodegrade in these conditions.
If the paper has been chemically treated to improve its properties, these chemicals may also produce toxic and environmentally hazardous byproducts as the paper decomposes. Paper is also relatively fragile, especially when wet, so it can be difficult to reuse paper packaging, ultimately limiting its reuse potential.
Finally, as the wood can be sourced far from manufacturing plants, the transport of this raw material can contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, especially if the vehicles involve use fossil fuels.
People typically have a negative view of plastics when it comes to choosing environmentally-friendly materials. However, plastics also have distinct advantages over other packaging materials. They have the highest strength-to-mass ratio compared to paper and cloth, so plastic packaging can use less raw material while still having decent strength. This also means that plastic waste takes up less space during storage and disposal.
Additionally, plastics are incredibly durable, capable of being reused many times with little degradation in performance. However, their durability is both a blessing and a curse, as they are also extremely resistant to biodegradation, with some plastics requiring millennia before being complete decomposition occurs.
Even biodegradable plastics suffer a similar fate, as these materials degrade into specks of plastic that can persist for centuries. The plastic production also uses raw materials derived from the petroleum industry, which also produce fossil fuels that have very high carbon footprints. Finally, additives added to plastic may leach out and contaminate the surrounding environment unless countermeasures are taken.
“Avoid excessive packaging, particularly plastic containers, food storage bags, and plastic shopping bags,” writes Susan McQuillan M.S., RDN.
The cloth is the middle ground between paper and plastics. Like the former, it can be made out of biodegradable fibers such as cotton. Like the latter, it can be made extremely strong and has very high reusability.
Unlike paper and plastic that are usually made to be disposable, cloth packaging is typically meant to be explicitly reusable, so manufacturers take extra steps to optimize for reusability. This reusability drastically reduces the amount of material that needs to be disposed of.
“We measured how much people did a wide range of pro-environmental behaviors, and how visible each behavior was to other people. Some behaviors like carrying reusable bags to the grocery are very visible to others,” writes Cameron Brick, Ph.D.
Nevertheless, cloth packaging also suffers from the same problems as paper and plastic. If biodegradable fibers are used, the cloth may still take a long time to degrade in landfills. If non-biodegradable materials are used, the cloth may persist for thousands of years.
Additionally, cloth packaging will require some regular cleaning and maintenance for continued reuse. Otherwise, the material will become a perfect breeding ground for microorganisms, some of which can cause disease.
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