At Dai headquarters, we are trying to figure out the most environmentally friendly way to deliver your performance wear. From durability to reusability to lifecycle costs, there’s more to each package than meets the eye. There is no doubt that all packaging materials have some sort of impact on the environment. Our first question is, which one has the least environmental impact?
Next question: with the hype around “unboxing” that it’s even got its own genre on YouTube, what is the value placed by the consumer on the 3 minute unboxing high?
First, let’s get educated. Warning: this is a 6 minute read (we challenge your attention span), after which you will feel much more informed and even stop to think before you toss your next piece of trash.
Paper – the Facts
Where does paper come from? Trees – lots and lots of trees. If you think about it, the production of paper comes from cutting down trees from rainforests leading to deforestation. Instead of trees absorbing carbon dioxide to create fresh oxygen for us to breathe, we double the amount of pollutants in the environment – which is what we are aiming to stop in the first place. In the initial stage of manufacturing paper alone, studies have shown that paper production emits 70% more air pollution than plastic bags (Thompson, 2014). The whole process of manufacturing paper also emits 80% more greenhouse gases and uses three times more water than plastic bags (Lilienfield, 2007).
Photo by Kaleb Nimz on Unsplash
Once the paper is produced, it is then delivered through trucks and vans. Just so you know, paper bags are actually five to seven times heavier than plastic so it requires more trucks to carry them (ABC News, 2006). The typical shopping bag weighs roughly 6-8 grams. A Kraft paper bag? 55 grams! It’s a simple point: heavy load = more trucks = more air pollution.
So, once you’re done unpacking your item, a couple of things can happen. Some paper bags can be composted (great!) or they can be thrown away – which is what many of us do. Once we throw them away, it will eventually break down in the coming many, many years.
But what if we recycle them? Here comes the tricky part: The paper must first be re-pulped, which requires a complicated chemical process to separate the pulp fibers. It is then cleaned and screened so it is free from anything that may contaminate the paper-making process, and then it is washed to remove any leftover ink, before it is pressed and rolled into a brand-new paper. (Complete Recycling, LLC, n.d.).
The good news is there are many waste streams to recycle in the US and EU. In 2015, the paper recycling rate in the EU was 71.5%, and the industry is targeting 74% by 2020 (European Paper Recycling Council, 2017). In 2016, the industry’s recovery rate for paper consumed in the U.S. was 67.2 percent (American Forest and Paper Association, 2016).
Plastic – the Facts
Unlike paper bags, plastics are made from oil – a non-renewable resource. Plastics are a by-product of the oil-refining process which accounts for about 4% of the oil production around the globe (Gosden, 2015). When producing plastic, the biggest consumption is electricity which comes from dirty sources like coal and petroleum (Palm, et al., 2016).
The most obvious case with regards to people who are pro-paper is that plastic waste takes up to 500 or even 1000 years in landfills (Lapidos, 2007). Another topic of discussion is the harmful dangers of plastic to wildlife (Gosden, 2015). Because most animals mistake plastic for food, they eventually eat it leading to their starvation and death.
Like paper, plastic can also be recycled but it also isn’t simple. In fact, only 30% of the 6 billion pounds of plastic are recycled. Of that 30%, just one-fifth is processed to create new ones (Wong , 2017). Recycling plastics to create new ones involves re-melting the bags and re-casting it, which requires two-thirds of the energy used in virgin plastic manufacturing. But, as any chef who has ever tried to re-heat a Hollandaise sauce will tell you, the quality isn’t quite as good the second time around. Basically, plastic is often downcycled – it loses its viability and its value in the process of recycling – making it hard to make new plastic bags out of old ones.
What about biodegradables?
Biodegradable plastic is a mixed bag (pun intended) as well; while polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) and Polylactide (PLA) are completely biodegradable in compost and are not made from petroleum, they are often derived from our food sources. Most bioplastics today are made from corn that is grown and harvested unsustainably just because it competes with food supply – so it may or may not be a long-term solution in the world of plastics (Colwill, et al., 2011). They have poor strength and limited shelf life, making them impractical for courier transport.
An additive-based biodegradable plastic is an alternative, whereby the additive provides UV/oxidative and then biological mechanism to degrade the film in 6 months to 2 years. These are as sturdy as their non-degradable couterparts, and also easy to recycle (Polybags, 2017).
Lifecycle food for thought
According to a life cycle analysis done by Franklin Associates Ltd (Franklin Associates Ltd, n.d.), plastic bags create fewer airborne emissions and require less energy during the life cycle of both types of bags per 10,000 equivalent uses. Assuming nothing is recycled, plastic creates 9.1 cubic pounds of solid waste vs. 45.8 cubic pounds of paper; plastic creates 17.9 pounds of atmospheric emissions vs. 64.2 pounds for paper. Of course, the numbers decrease in size as they get more recycled – the more that they are recycled, the lower the overall impact.
So wait. Plastic uses and emits less but is recycled at a lower rate. Paper uses and emits more but is recycled at a higher rate.
“So net-net, they’re the same” said no source that we found. We’d love to think we are this clever and discovered the solution.
Back to Dai
So, how do we all win? As we speak to suppliers over the coming weeks, these are our priorities:
- Consider the lifecycle
- Perform its intended function
- Make it reusable
Oh, and we’ll keep an eye on aesthetics too.
What do you think? We would love to hear your comments and feedback. Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Looking for eco-certified, high-performing, sustainably produced pieces? Shop our collection here.
Colwill, J., Rahimifard, S., Wright, E. & Clegg, A., 2011. Bio-plastics in the context of competing demand for agricultural land in 2050. International Journal of Sustainable Engineering, 25 July , 5(1), pp. 3-16.
Palm , E., Nilsson, L. & Ahman, M., 2016. Electricity-based plastics and their potential demand for electricity and carbon dioxide. Journal of Cleaner Production, 15 August, Volume 129, pp. 548-555.