This is a guide outlining whether cardboard is more sustainable than plastic, and vice versa.
We compare some of the key factors involved in the production, usage and waste management of each.
Summary – Is Cardboard More Sustainable Than Plastic?
- We already put together a guide on the sustainability of paper compared to plastic, but this guide focuses specifically on cardboard
- Some of the main sustainability considerations for cardboard and plastic might be:
- 1. Cardboard is sourced from renewable wood pulp (processed into Kraft paper), or recycled cardboard material (cardboard has a high recycling rate). Plastic on the other hand is sourced from non renewable fossil fuels
- 2. The production process of card board may actually be less environmentally friendly than plastic, as paper mills are historically known for their water and energy use, and use of chemicals. Air and water pollution can also be an issue. Recycled cardboard can cut down on the environmental footprint, but even so, it’s unclear if recycled card board has a lower eco impact than plastic in terms of production. Some sources indicate recycling ‘halves the environmental impact’
- 3. Plastic might have a lesser carbon footprint for packaging and for transporting and delivering goods than cardboard.
- 4. Cardboard has a clear sustainability benefit over plastic when it comes to disposal, waste management and end of product or material lifecycle. Cardboard is bio degradable and breaks down much quicker than plastic. It also has a much higher recycling rate.
- Overall, it depends on the environmental indicator and stage of the product or material lifecycle you are talking about, when considering if plastic or cardboard is more sustainable. Cardboard seems to win out in the sourcing and waste management stage, where as plastic seems to win out in the production stage.
How Cardboard Is Used
Cardboard is a heavy duty type of paper, that is usually thicker and more durable than regular paper. It is widely used for:
- Packaging, storage and box material
- Tubes for different products like toilet rolls
- Printed items and products like cards and signs
Paper stock, paper board and corrugated cardboard are some of the different types of card board.
Cardboard vs Plastic: Comparison
- How They Are Sourced – Cardboard comes from either wood pulp or recycled card board. Plastic comes from non renewable fossil fuel feedstock (crude oil and natural gas). Card board might be more sustainable when sourced through a sustainable forestry initiative or certification
- Production Footprint – like paper, there has been some effort to make the production of cardboard more sustainable in recent years, but, there is still a reasonable eco footprint with card board (especially when you consider virgin materials and paper mills). Even recycling card board only ‘halves the environmental impact’ (technikpackaging.com)
- Packaging, Delivery & Transport – cardboard generally has a higher carbon footprint than plastic in packaging and for delivery or products as a packing material (technikpackaging.com). When considered over the lifetime of the packaging, paper and cardboard embody far more greenhouse gases (theguardian.com)
- Recyclability – some types of cardboard like waxy or dirty/contaminated board is a challenge to recycle, but overall, cardboard has a recycling rate of 85.8 percent in Europe (blog.sappi-psp.com), compared to less than a third of plastic waste in Europe [being] recycled (europarl.europa.eu). Both the plastic and cardboard recycling markets can change in terms of value for recycled materials – which can hinder recycling efforts
- Other Waste Management Considerations – card board is mostly recycled, while most plastic is sent to land fill. Plastic can also be sent to be incinerated.
- Pollution In The Environment – plastic is one of the most heavily littered and polluted materials, especially in rivers and oceans. Plastic can have a range of negative effects in the environment, not least is ingestion by and entanglement for marine animals.
- Biodegradability & Time To Degrade – cardboard is biodegradable and might only take around 2 months to break down. Plastic on the other hand is not biodegradable and some researchers say plastic may never fully break down.
- Other Sustainability Factors – plastic also has side effects such as leaching of chemicals (BPA, phthalates, etc.) and a possible impact on human health to consider.
- Different Types Of Cardboard – one source indicates ‘corrugating medium [cardboard creates the least eco impact], with bleached kraft paperboard creating the most environmental impact (technikpackaging.com)
The Sustainability Of Plastic
Read more specifically about the sustainability of plastic in this guide.
Other Factors To Consider
- Just as there is different types of plastic, there are different types of cardboard. Each different type of cardboard can have a different sustainability footprint
- Recycled card board can have a different sustainability rating compared to card board made from virgin materials
- The waste management systems, facilities and technology in a given country or State make a difference to the sustainability not just of different materials, but different waste items and products (because of how different waste materials and items are processed among the different disposal options at different rates)
- How long a cardboard product or item lasts, or how many times it can be used/re-used before being thrown out, impacts it’s sustainability footprint