Paper or Plastic? One Actually Is Better for the Environment

Stacks of plastic recycling

Out of the 33 million tons of plastic we generate every year, less than 10 percent actually gets recycled.

Recycling plastic is a no-brainer these days. Theoretically, it should be pretty easy. Use up your shampoo, rinse out the bottle, then toss it in the recycling bin. Voila! Off it goes to its inevitable reincarnation. Simple, right?

Not so fast. The reality is unfortunately far more complicated. Americans are locked into a dysfunctional relationship with plastic. Collectively, we generate approximately 33 million tons of plastic trash each year, but less than 10 percent of that actually gets recycled. And even if you want to recycle the stuff, the multiple types—polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene, and so forth—lead to confusion about how and what plastics can successfully be accepted by most recycling programs.

"I think the public cares, but they have no idea what the numbers at the bottom of plastics mean," says Mitch Hedlund, executive director of Recycle Across America, an advocacy group that has created a standardized labeling system for recycling bins. "There is a lack of national communication to help the public know the difference between plastics—what is recyclable and what's not."

So what's an ecologically minded person to do? Crucially, the less plastic you can use, the better. And when it comes to the old "paper or plastic?" question, there's no debate: "Paper and cardboard are amazing if they're recycled," Hedlund says. That's because paper can be easily remade, and more people understand how to properly recycle it. (Though, as Hedlund points out, paper should be kept separate from other recycling to avoid touching food residue and other contaminants.)

Paper has also become versatile in recent years, even replacing plastic in some situations. Seed Phytonutrients, a new line of natural beauty products, swaps the traditionally plastic bottle for a fully recyclable and compostable paper packaging they developed—an industry first. Currently, the material is made from post-consumer paper waste, but Scott Schienvar, Seed’s Packaging Development Farmhand (“farmhand” is how the company refers to their employees) explains that they’ll eventually look to reuse their own cardboard. "As this project progresses, we'll be turning boxes from our distribution network into our bottles,” he says. “We’ll create a closed loop."

To hold liquids like hair cleanser and conditioner, Schienvar's team did have to use some plastic—the paper wouldn’t be recyclable if it were in direct contact with the product. Seed strived to engineer the most eco-friendly solution they could. The result? A wafer-thin pouch made of 100 percent recycled plastic. "The equivalent bottle would use 20 grams of plastic,” explains Schienvar. “We're using only nine." Of course, the pouch is recyclable, too.

Consuming less overall, choosing paper when given the option, and making recycling easier to understand may sound like simple solutions for the plastic problem, and that’s exactly the point. "We're in a great position to make a change," says Hedlund. "But we need everybody to start unifying around common-sense solutions.” Eventually, she explains, a critical mass of people changing their habits creates change. “My five-year goal is for people to say, 'Remember when recycling was confusing? Remember when most manufacturers weren't closing the loop? Remember when there was more plastic going into the oceans than there was going into remanufacturing?'" It's a noble dream—and, with a collective effort, a possible reality.