Plastic vs Paper Straws and Packaging: Which is More Sustainable? A Complex Truth.

Plastic vs Paper Straws and Packaging: Which is More Sustainable? A Complex Truth.

As our knowledge of the environmental impacts of plastic has increased, so has the demand for sustainable alternatives. A common response from many businesses has been to switch from plastic packaging to paper packaging. 

On the surface, it’s easy to assume that plastic packaging (including straws) are bad whilst paper alternatives are good (environmentally speaking). However, the truth is not that simple. 

Let’s take a closer look.

Plastic straws (and packaging)

The good 

  • Less resource usage when compared to paper - efficient production process
  • Highly durable
  • Lightweight (reducing transport emissions and bulk).

The bad 

  • Made from non-renewable fossil fuels (created through a process of industrial heating, cooling, chemical treating and moulding)
  • Take lifetimes to break down (decomposition rate averages 200 years!)
  • Often single-use
  • Hard to recycle - meaning low rate of recycling and a reliance on virgin materials
  • Release harmful microplastics and other chemicals into the environment, impacting wildlife and humans
  • Plastic straws in particular are a difficult item to recycle. Small in size, they are easily lost in the recycling process. Often made from polypropylene - a plastic that not all facilities can recycle.

Paper straws (and packaging)

The good

  • Made from trees (cellulose fibre) which are easily recyclable and re-plantable
  • Higher percentage recycled at end of life when compared to plastics
  • Choice of regulated options that are environmentally-conscious, such as: 
    • FSC-certified sources
    • 100% post-consumer recycled.
  • A paper straw takes on average 2-6 months to decompose vs 200 years for plastic straws.

The bad

  • Encourage deforestation and release of CO2 back into the air
  • Logging of native forests can impact wildlife habitat and even lead to species extinction, impact water supplies, and contribute to climate change 
  • Pulp and paper industries have a higher amount of water usage from evaporation and use during processing, secondary waste and treatment of products
  • Lower reusability than durable plastics (e.g. a paper bag can be reused less than a plastic bag)
  • Energy and water use high for both production AND recycling
  • Paper straws have known issues with quality and stability over time, especially when exposed to liquids (think soggy straw challenges).

Quick Fact: Ever wondered how many trees it takes to make a sheet of paper? 

According to the Paper Calculator it takes 0.06 trees plus a whopping 202L water to make 1 ream of paper (500 sheets).

As you can see this is not a simple comparison. There are clear pros and cons to both plastic and paper packaging options. 

If your business relies on packaging solutions, it’s important to carefully weigh up the pros and cons or to select an alternative with a lower carbon footprint. 

Considerations include:

  • Resources required to make the packaging
  • Lifecycle of the materials - from the resources needed to make them, to their potential to be reused/ recycled at end of life
  • Transportation and distribution of packaging 
  • Demand for raw materials, energy and water consumption
  • Carbon footprint is similar for both plastic and paper packaging. 

What’s the sustainable solution?

There are a growing number of natural, plant-based materials that are proving effective for straws and packaging. Often these natural materials are a by-product of existing industries, taking what would otherwise end up as waste and creating useful items which will break down naturally at the end of their life.

These include:

  • Bamboo packaging
  • Mushroom packaging
  • Seaweed packaging
  • Organic fabrics
  • Sugarcane straws

Here at Little Green Panda, we’re on a mission to reduce the damaging impact of single-use plastics. We know we can’t turn off the plastic tap overnight however we can turn to nature and our advanced technology to create straws that disappear in a few weeks instead of a few centuries. 

We make sustainable sugarcane straws that are 100% biodegradable, home compostable, and water-resistant up to 12 hours! We use industry byproducts and meet the new plastic ban regulations (no plastic here). 


Keen to try our sugarcane straws for yourself? Order your free samples here.

Ready to make the change to sustainable sugarcane straws? Buy your straws here.


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