Instead Of Plastic: Is Paper Or Cardboard Packaging Really Better?

Paper bags at the vegetable counter, tomatoes in cardboard boxes instead of plastic film – more and more packaging made of paper or cardboard is replacing plastic. And that has to be environmentally friendly, right? We asked experts. More and more single-use plastic packaging is being replaced by packaging made of paper, cardboard or cardboard. So our plastic waste is getting less and less and we are successfully protecting nature, right?

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. You cannot say in general whether packaging made of paper or plastic is more sustainable. Because how sustainable a packaging is depends on many different factors. One of them is, for example, the question of whether the material will be reused.

How well can paper or cardboard packaging be recycled?

Paper can usually be recycled well if it is separated according to type. In 2019, the recycling rate for paper, cardboard and cardboard was 81.9 percent according to figures from the Central Office for Packaging Register (ZSVR) (- thermal recycling through incineration is not counted here). But paper has different properties than plastic, for example it is not leak-proof and does not protect food as well from spoiling. This is why composite materials , for example made of plastic and paper or cardboard, are often used as packaging. These are no longer as easily recyclable as packaging made from a single material: According to the latest figures from the ZSVR, the recycling rate for other composite packaging was only around 58.8 percent in 2019.

If such packaging ends up in a recycling plant for paper, only the paper can be recycled, explains Norbert Völl, press spokesman for Green Punk, to Utopia. The plastic part would be detached and in most cases burned. Beverage cartons such as Tetrapaks are an exception . A system is under construction here that will remove the remaining components of the packaging (i.e. aluminum and plastic) and feed them for recycling, says Völl.

How well can plastic be recycled?

Recycling plastic packaging also has its pitfalls. According to figures from the ZSVR, the material recycling rate for plastic was around 58.5 percent in 2019. But that does not mean that a correspondingly large amount of waste is recycled from our yellow sack and replaced with new plastic. This proportion is even lower – according to Norbert Völl from Green Dot, it is only around eight percent. According to the expert, this is because plastic recycled from waste is more expensive than new plastic, especially if it is to achieve high quality. The challenge here: whether a plastic can be recycled depends on what it is made of and whether it is colored, for example. “Certain plastics such as polyethylene , for example, are easier to recycle than others,” explains Völl. Plastic bags are made from this material. Mixtures of different plastics can usually no longer be separated. And dark-colored plastics, such as the material used in many shower gel bottles for men, are no longer lightened.

If the recycled plastic (recycled material) is of high quality, it can be used to create new products and sometimes even packaging. The bottles from the smoothie manufacturer Innocent , for example, consist of over 50 percent recycled plastic. Mixed plastics (including many of the thin packaging films) are, however, often collected separately and usually burned, so Frank Wellenreuther from the Department of Industry and Products at the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research Heidelberg ( ifeu ) told Utopia.

But that doesn’t have to be bad: In many supermarkets you can buy liquid goods, such as sauces, not only in screw-top jars, but now also in plastic stand-up pouches. According to Wellenreuther, a stand-up pouch is usually not recycled, but thermally recovered. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s worse than a sauce in a jar. Because recycling the screw-top jar alone requires more energy than manufacturing the bag.

Incidentally, the term “recyclable” does not mean that packaging is also recycled. According to a study by the consulting firm HTP, which is available to the editorial team, a large part of our plastic waste should be recyclable (67 percent). Whether it is really recycled depends on whether the responsible waste management company has the technical requirements. “Chip bags, for example, are vaporized on the inside with metal and are actually recyclable, but in practice they are generally not recycled in Germany,” says ifeu expert Wellenreuther.

Paper is a renewable raw material – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is better

The example with recycling shows: It is difficult to say in general whether plastic or paper are better as packaging materials. But there are other points that influence the ecology of packaging. “That includes the filling goods , that includes the logistics, and plastic packaging often does not come off badly,” explains Gunda Rachut from the Central Packaging Register Foundation to Deutschlandfunk .

According to Frank Wellenreuther from ifeu, how much material is used for the packaging also plays a role . Tomatoes, for example, used to be wrapped in thin plastic film, but now they are also available without plastic, but in a thick cardboard tray. “The supposedly more sustainable option therefore needs more material, which will probably have a negative impact on the ecological balance,” explains the expert.

The argument “ paper is a renewable raw material ” must also be carefully examined. Sure: the amount of CO2 emissions that arise during disposal was previously absorbed by plants from the atmosphere. This means that no additional greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere. It is different with fossil raw materials – the substances were extracted from below the earth’s surface and have not been in the atmosphere for a very long time; the concentration of greenhouse gases increases during combustion.

Frank Wellenreuther warns: “This calculation only works if it is ensured that exactly as much wood grows back as is used. That is not the case globally, the forest area is shrinking. ”For example, paper for beverage cartons on the European market comes exclusively from Sweden and Finland; In the case of shopping bags or other packaging made of paper, the paper could also be of other origin. He advises you to give preference to packaging with the FSC seal when buying .

How can consumers: identify better packaging inside?

It is sometimes difficult to tell whether paper is a composite. A shiny surface can be a clue. Norbert Völl from Grüner Punkt recommends tearing the paper packaging in one place. If a film comes out or if a lot of force is required, it is usually a composite. But of course that is only possible if you have already bought the product.

We consumers can hardly tell whether packaging made of paper, cardboard or plastic is more environmentally friendly. Also read : Aluminum, plastic, sheet metal or glass – which packaging is the most climate-friendly?
What we can definitely do: Avoid packaging. In unpackaged shops you can get almost all products completely free of packaging.

Tip: Dispose of paper and plastic packaging correctly

Paper goes in the paper waste, plastic in the plastic waste – that much is clear. But where do composites go?

It would be ideal to throw away the two materials separately. With a yogurt cup with a paper cover, for example, this is easy: Throw the cup in the yellow sack or the yellow bin, the paper label goes with the paper waste. The important thing is to take off the aluminum lid and do not put the packaging inside each other, otherwise they will be sorted incorrectly, warns Völl.
When the two materials are processed together, you can no longer easily separate them. “These materials also belong in the yellow bin or the yellow sack,” explains Völl from Green Dot. “At least if the paper content is less than 95 percent.”

Utopia means: plastic bad, paper good – unfortunately it’s not that simple. Instead one has to differentiate from case to case. We consumers can hardly tell what the more sustainable option is. Nevertheless, we can do something: ask critical questions, demand transparency (for example via the Replace Plastic App ) and not be fobbed off with sustainable-sounding formulations such as “ecological” or “recyclable”.

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