Packaging: Does Plastic Deserve Its Bad Reputation?

Packaging: Does Plastic Deserve Its Bad Reputation?

plastic bag litterThe next time you’re at the grocery store and the checkout clerk asks the question, ‘Paper or plastic?’ be sure you have all the facts. Paper is the environmentally friendly choice, goes the mantra, but, after calculating the total environmental impact plastic starts to look like a good choice (unless, of course, you carry your own cloth bags). Here is a comparison of various packaging options that might surprise you…

Is plastic the public enemy #1 for environmentally-conscious shoppers? After all it is supposed to be non-renewable, non-biodegradable, not all types can be recycled, and a lot of it ends up in our landfills.

Deciding to avoid plastic would seem a wise choice, but looking more closely, plastic requires little energy to produce and shipping costs are also low because of its strength-to-weight ratio. This translates not only into reduced raw materials but also lower energy requirements for production and shipment: reduced environmental impact.

The fact is that the three main characteristics of plastic: strength, lightweight and flexibility all contribute to make plastic the packaging material of choice for a wide range of industries today.

Still though, it isn’t perfect. Anne Johnson, of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, a Virginia-based industry working group says that everything is a trade off when it comes to selecting the proper packaging. They admit that all types of packaging are environmentally unfriendly in different ways. Only nature has come up with packaging materials that meet the necessary environmental requirements, think of fruit like oranges and bananas.

Let’s consider our non-fruit options:

  • Glass (primarily as bottles) are classic containers for soft drinks and alcohol, however glass requires a lot of energy to make and also to recycle; and it is heavy to ship.
  • Paper products can package a wide range of products easily and it has the much touted benefits of being renewable and degradable. But similar to glass, it is bulky to ship, can require a lot of energy to produce and may also use environmentally damaging chemicals in its production.
  • Metal packaging such as aluminum is often just impractical due to its sheer weight, but also because it requires a lot of energy to produce and the recycling process weighs heavily on it total environmental impact.

Given all of this, it is very difficult to state with certainty which is green and which is not.

Helen Lewis of the Sustainable Packaging Alliance in Melbourne, Australia, feel that plastic’s characteristics make it a less environmentally damaging choice than glass or paper. With greenhouse gas emissions nearing the top of most environmental and political agendas, plastics begin to look good, since reduction in total energy requirements reduces the environmental impact.

Of the three R’s of waste management, only plastic hits all three:

  1. Reduce. By requiring few raw materials for production of an equivalent strength container in other materials, plastic reduces the materials and energy needed.
  2. Re-use. More and more plastic items are being re-used or made to be re-useable (think of the ubiquitous plastic bag and refillable detergent bottles as examples).
  3. Recycle. All types of plastics, once dumped into landfills are becoming more and more recyclable and those plastics that cannot be recycled easily are often being burned to generate energy as plastic produces more than 3 times the energy as conventional combustible waste. Further the resulting ash has only 10 % of the volume and 20 % of the weight further reducing the overall amount of waste to be taken to the landfill. At present, efforts are underway to turn the ash into useful construction materials such as building blocks and roadways.

biodegradable water bottle Efforts are also being made to produce more biodegradable plastics made from corn, wood pulp, and sugar, among other sources. (See these May, 2006 GNN-i stories about bio-bottles and bio-bags.) Anne Johnson commenting on the recent Biodegradable Plastics in Packaging conference held in Chicago last year stated that a very intriguing future source is switchgrass.

"Switchgrass is a native North American prairie grass that can grow in depleted or poor soil anywhere, from the south of Mexico to the north of Canada," she said. "Land and climate conditions unsuitable for many agricultural products can sustain switchgrass.”

One company, Innovia Films, has developed a biodegradable plastic film for fresh food that has excellent transparency and is semi-permeable to moisture providing good anti-mist properties. The film, called NatureFlex NVS, also offers a good barrier to gases and aromas; and is cellulose based, derived from renewable wood pulp sourced from managed and sustainable forests.

Alright, so plastic isn’t evil after all, but what about some of the seemingly more obvious packaging excesses? Shrink-wrapped vegetables? Over-sized packages on electronic items?

Industries rarely act without being sure of a healthy profit for their efforts. What seems like excess packaging (ok, we can leave this one for a debate) has proven to be smart for business.

  • People can put clean, wrapped potatoes straight into the microwave – this ease of preparation translates into higher potato sales.
  • Oversized packaging can serve two functions by better protection of the product so that it reaches the store shelves in one piece and also reducing potential for theft since bulky items are more difficult for a shoplifter to conceal.
  • Safe arrival of the product is critical point in our global society where products are often manufactured in one part of the world and shipped to another.

Even with recycling efforts on all packaging materials, 69 million tons of it enter US landfills each year so what is a consumer to do?

"Always try to pick refillable packaging," says Marko Hekkert of Utrecht University in the Netherlands, who compared the greenhouse gas emissions of a range of packaging materials. If that’s not possible, a pouch is the next best option for liquid products, followed by cardboard cartons, and then a lightweight plastic container. Aluminium and steel cans are a no-no due to their high energy requirements to produce and ship. He points out that soda is no longer sold in cans in the Netherlands. Says Hekkert, "Metal is just bad packaging."

Additional reading: New Scientist, 7 April 2007, "Packaging – unwrapped"
Sustainable Packaging Coalition:
Innvoia Films:

Michael Little is an analytical chemist currently working at a research centre for an international pharmaceutical company. Originally from Nova Scotia, Michael now resides in Laval, Quebec with his wife and two children. Michael joined the GNN-i team as a science writer in May 2007. Read his collected articles here.


  1. Canvas is great – but my #1 choice is backpack! Both hands free to grab the mail & open the door… I nab my co-workers’ plastic takeout-lunch bags to stuff the recyclable paper & cardboard in. I’d like someone to invent a heavy-duty bin liner that breaks down after 10 years.

  2. Yea, Columbine, I like that bio-bin bag idea.

    one of these days I’m going to do an article on the three things I do environmentally that are a tremendous help if everyone did them.

    1) canvas bags carried into all stores
    2) composting and recycling — our family of five exports less than two bags each week to the landfill
    3) Reusing is even better than recycling, so I use cloth rags and napkins (instead of paper products) and I refill water bottles: Three more ways to keep the landfill heap down. (we live on a lake with well water and septic, and use bio-detergent so our water is essentially recycling after laundry and tasty as can be after being filtered naturally.

  3. Columbine, YOU are a MIND-READER, or something.

    I’m so glad you posted this. I actually heard this posed as fact on the radio, that reuse with plastic bottles, especially when frozen (which we use a lot) causes toxicity.

    Your link has calmed any growing fear on this front. Please keep an eye on any more articles you might see on this subject.

    Funny, I thought, I don’t taste anything toxic, and I am very sensitive to chemicals, in fact, won’t TOUCH a diet soda because it tastes to me like it has metal in it …

    Thanks so much for sharing.

  4. I understand it has become difficult to get away from all the packaging materials but I still feel that we as an individual can still make a difference. It is important that we do not get carried away and think that plastic is good and continue to use more of it.

    It is important we try to reuse things in every little way. I always try to carry a cloth bag for my groceries and any shopping. I carry my own water wherever I travel so that I am not buying bottled water but refill it wherever possible.

  5. Rashmy,

    Absolutely agree.

    I’m glad there are two of us using cloth bags and bringing our own water. (Cashiers in grocery stores here in virginia still look at me like I’m foreign, indicating that not too many people carry the habitual bags…)

  6. Here is what my friend wrote to when he read this article:

    Interesting, no doubt. But here’s my two bit take on this article.

    1. No cow ever died after eating a paper bag. Or for that matter any animal. Animals die after eating plastic. and they decay. But the plastic doesn’t. It usually ends up in the tummy of another animal (usually in the animal that feeeds on the carcass). And the killing cycle continues. For about a 1000 years atleast. It could be more. But no one has lived to tell the tale. And how many animals can a single plastic bag kill before it finally decidedes to disappear is anybody’s guess.
    And this effect is not restricted to terrestrial animals. Birds and fish die too.

    On an average it has been found that a cow in India has about 30 kilos of plastic in it’s tummy. So, i guess, what we’re throwing is what we’re drinking. What goes around comes around?

    2. There’s no mention of all the toxic chemicals that goes into the making of plastic. I know. I’m a polymer engineer. At least by training:-)

    3. Plastics in landfills hang around for at least a thousand years.
    During this time, if they’re burned, they release highly toxic gases into the atmosphere.
    If they’re eaten by animals, you know what happens.
    And if they’re just left there, they block the rainwater from reaching and recharging the groundwater table.

    4. There’s no such thing as food grade plastic. It’s a big fat eyewash. Even ikea is saying this and promoting glass kitchenware instead of plastic.

    5. Plastic is only good for business. It’s bad for the environment.

    6. Ideally, the best plastic is no plastic. But since that’s impossible in today’s context. So the best thing to do today is to use as less plastic as possible. If we ate more fresh stuff, grown locally, then there’d be no need to “wrap” food items, freeze them, and “preserve their freshness”. Basically, it’s better to eat bananas in bangalore than apples from washington that have to be “wrapped” before they can be flown across the seas to land our plates.

  7. Everyone has made some very interesting and valuable comments. The point of the article was to highlight that choosing a truly “green” material is not easy. The energy required to produce and ship the item is not trivial and it does impact our environment. Regardless, the first and foremost way for the public to reduce the environmental impact of a product is to reuse it as many times as possible.

    Plastic bags were introduced onto the market as a cheap, disposable means to carry groceries (at least as I recall). This disposable aspect needs to be changed. A plastic bag can be reused a great many times before it must be discarded. Nevertheless, I completely agree with practice of using cloth or canvas bags since their useful lifetimes should be much longer than that of a plastic bag and they may be easily repaired when damaged.

    Manufacturing of plastic (I’m lumping all plastics together here which may not be fair) is known to use and produce chemicals that are toxic in nature. This is unfortunate but I also believe that this will change – and it must! But plastic is not the only product suffering these woes: Paper products and clothing, depending on how they are produced are not innocent either. But as environmental regulations become tighter, businesses will be forced to find alternative routes to produce their products. If we all keep pushing our politicians, I believe that we will be able to achieve this.

    Regarding the disposal aspect, I feel that not only plastic but all materials used for packaging should be reduced or at least be made more environmentally friendly. As pointed out above, the reality of business today is that plastic will not go away and with regard to the aspects as pointed out in the article, nor should it. But again, its environmental impact needs to be improved, most particularly with regard to its degradation. This research is quite active and products are beginning to reach the market.

    In the long run, I believe that we will have more of these plastics reaching the market and becoming widespread, the economic and projected environmental impact will push this, but in the meantime we share the responsibility to handle all of our waste properly. The problems mentioned above about cows dying and plastic bags in Bangalore are social ones, in my opinion. There are many products that if discarded improperly will harm a plant or animal. As for Bangalore, plastic gets the blame, but a lack of garbage collection and recycling program(s) is the real culprit. People package their refuse in plastic bags and leave them on the street because they have no alternative. The health and environmental impacts of all the refuse collecting in the streets is the primary problem to be solved. Clearly this is social and will only change when the people of Bangalore demand complete garbage collection and prosecution of those that do not follow the rules.

    Lastly, supporting local merchants selling locally produced products is an excellent idea and I encourage everyone to do it. Keep in mind however, the business today is global and because the general public demands low cost items, manufacturers will continue to find ways to keep their end prices low while holding onto their profit margins – often this may mean shipping a completed product around to world to be distributed. Other reasons for the shipment of products are that the raw materials are not available in all regions to support the manufacturing to produce them.

    Thank you to everyone who read and commented here!!

  8. Are some plastics bio-degradable? Lately when I am hiking and I run across a plastic grocery bag in the dirt or wherever it crumbles when I try to pick it up. I live in a hot and humid invoirnmant and wonder if that may help? Great to hear so many people caring.

  9. Hmmm, that’s a good question, Joe.

    I want to remind everyone, too, that the fact that plastic bottles can now be made from corn or husks of plants is an outstanding evolution in the plastics industry. I bet we can expect more good things from them.

    I really appreciate Michael pointing out that animals ingesting bags can also be seen as a social problem, more than the fault of the material. That adds more clarity to this ongoing discussion.

  10. Another thing about plastics – all of them – is that they wash out into the oceans. There are vast deposits of plastics floating around in the oceans, and washed up on beaches. These plastics also end up in marine-animal tummies. The LATimes had a great series on the oceans. See part 4 to read about the plastic islands:,0,7842752.special

    There are a few plastics made out of corn starch -like the great edible packaging “peanuts” and some disposable picnic cups and plates. But I always end up washing any plastic plates I get and reuse them!