I am often asked this question.
Both have an impact on the environment, but to different degrees because no natural and synthesised material is made without the use of energy and resources powered by carbon-rich resources such as coal, oil and gas. There is no perfect material currently and this is an inconvenience truth. However, good news – this is all about to change.
If we compare fossil-based plastic with materials, made from trees and plants, to measure the carbon extracted and CO₂ emitted into the atmosphere, we need to consider the full life-cycle of the materials from cradle to cradle as well the manufacturing processes and logistical impacts.
The story of plastic (click link for video)
In 1862, an Englishman from Birmingham called Alexandra Parkes, invented the first synthetic plastic called Parksine, a hardened form of nitrocellulose. This then led to the first commercial product, billiard balls, developed by an American printer from New York called John Wesley Hyatt, who was awarded $10,000 by Michael Phelan in 1863 due to the cost of ivory and concerns of its shortage.
The first fossil-based plastic, Bakelite, was then invented in 1907 by the Belgian-American chemist Leo Baekeland, also from New York and from here 100’s of different types of plastic were invented, which for the oil and gas industry was a great breakthrough because they’re waste could now be turned into valuable products, which helped transform society from the Agricultural to the Industrial Age.
Today we produce over 9.2 billion tonnes of plastic every year, doubling each decade, of which about 40% is used to make packaging. Plastic is made from extracted crude oil and natural gas, starting its journey millions of years ago from fossilised, liquified organic life forms, which are drilled from the ground, pumped, piped, refined (oil into ethane and gas into propane), cracked into smaller molecules (ethylene and propylene), polymerised into resins (polyethylene and polypropylene), moulded into shapes and extruded like spaghetti, cooled and then chopped into tiny nurdles. These nurdles are then transported to factories all over the world where they are melted and converted into packaging and consumer products.
Plant-based alternatives (click for video link – interview on CNBC with Troy Swope, Founder of Footprint)
Cellulose is harvested from plants and managed forests (typically from FSC or PEFC certified pine and eucalyptus trees) and includes sugarcane (bagasse – the waste byproduct of the sugar-making process), bamboo, corn (PLA), miscanthus (elephant grass), mushrooms and seaweed. Plants are naturally powered by sunshine and water whilst sequestering CO₂ from the atmosphere, producing oxygen, regulating water-flow, maintaining biodiversity and regenerating and stabilising soil and climate fluctuations at the same time. These materials are often also easy to recycle many times over, unlike plastics, which are difficult to separate and recycle – particularly multi-layer laminates. On average, we recycle about 85% of the cellulose fibre we produce, rigid plastic 9% and flexible plastic only 3%. Some of the cellulose products mentioned are made from precious food sources, such as corn, and can’t easily be recycled and repulped with cellulose fibre but can be collected with food waste and industrially composted.
Thinner filmic plant-based biopolymers are also sometimes home compostable because they can biodegrade at ambient temperatures. There are also biodegradable and oxy-degradable fossil-based plastics, which have already been banned in countries like Italy because of the confusion created as to how to recycle them properly and the contamination they cause to soil, water and air.
Fossil-based plastic vs. cellulose packaging – which is best for your product?
This is difficult to answer clearly because it depends on many variables, which need to be considered holistically and, on a case-by-case basis. Plastic is versatile, inexpensive and often the current preferred option to protect and present products, but it is becoming increasingly unpopular because it is causing negative environmental and health impacts. Plastic is currently highly subsidised and not yet subject to punitive taxation, which reflect the true costs of recovery and recycling. In some countries, single-use plastic is becoming banned or taxed through extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation.
There are life-cycle analysis (LCA) reports available, but with any report, which is material and product specific, the empirical data needs to be independent and expertly reviewed, which is costly and complex. Here’s an example of a LCA report, commissioned by Swedish fibre-based material manufacturer, BillerudKorsnäs, comparing plastic shopping bags with paper cement sacks.
Barriers to change are usually commercial or technical. Plastic tends to be lower cost and switching to new materials, particularly on automated packing lines, can require changes and investment. Pack development is also costly and can be a complex process requiring commitment and alignment of everyone involved within the supply chain. But be in no doubt, change is coming. When most leading retailers and brands are committed to reducing single-use plastic waste, it’s only a matter of time before we reach a tipping point.
Over the next 25 years, the petrochemical industry is planning a 400% increase in production. To find out more, I recommend you read Naomi Klein’s well researched book, ‘This Changes Everything’, which is also available to watch as a short documentary film.
We can fix this, but only through true collaboration and changes in policy on a global scale. When we found out the problems with CFC’s a Worldwide ban was introduced in 1987. So, change is possible. Let’s hope COP26 is the catalyst for change, spearheading the end of coal and the beginning of the end of other carbon-rich, ancient fossil fuels to make packaging and other products.
Co-founder, Reelbrands Limited
22nd October 2021