LCA Michael Stephen Column

Paper vs Plastic and Organic Recycling (FREE)

Today Michael talks about Paper-v-Plastic, and “Organic recycling. This is a FREE article


Intuitively, we might feel that paper is more environmentally-friendly than plastic – after all it is made from trees. But it doesn’t grow on trees, so the trees have to be destroyed to make the paper.  In fact it takes 24 trees on average to make just one ton of paper. Whole forests are cut down to make paper – forests that could be helping the environment by absorbing greenhouse gases.

It also takes more than four times as much energy to manufacture a paper bag than to make a plastic bag. Most paper bags are made by heating wood chips under pressure at high temperatures in a chemical solution. The chemicals used in paper production are toxic and contribute to air pollution, including acid rain. They also pollute waterways and the toxicity of the chemicals is long term and settles in sediments, where it can work its way into the food chain.

In fact paper bags produce 70% more air-pollutants and 50% more water-pollutants than plastic bags.But it doesn’t end there. In 2005, the Scottish Government[1] issued an environmental impact assessment containing comparisons between a lightweight plastic bag and a paper bag.

Indicator of Environmental Impact Plastic bagHDPELightweightPaper
Consumption of nonrenewal primary energy1.01.1
Consumption of Water1.04.0
Climate Change (emission of greenhouse gases)1.03.3
Acid Raid (atmospheric acidification)1.01.9
Air quality (ground level ozone formation)1.01.3
Eutrophication of water (algal blooms, dead zones, fish kills)1.014.0
Solid waste production1.02.7
Risk of litter1.00.2

As will be seen from the table above, paper has more adverse environmental impact in almost every category. (A score greater than 1.0 indicates that the paper bag makes more contribution to that environmental problem than a lightweight plastic bag).  See also Life Cycle Assessment of Biodegradable, Compostable and Conventional Bags.

Advocates for paper will say that paper bags are ‘green’ because they are often 100% recyclable, and so they are, but a paper bag would need to be used at least 3 times to offset the environmental impact of its production.  Paper bags are not durable enough to be used 3 times, and they rarely survive a single use, as they tear easily.  Also they are much heavier than plastic bags and are nowhere near as strong, so you would need more of them, and they completely lose their strength when wet.

There are also unseen consequences of paper production.  Because paper is a lot heavier than plastic it costs a lot more to transport, and causes more pollution from transportation. According to a briefing paper published by the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2011[2] it would take approximately seven trucks to transport the same number of paper bags as can be transported by a single truck full of plastic bags.

Plastic is made from ethylene, a by-product of oil production which used to be wasted.  Therefore, so long as we still need oil for transport and energy production it makes sense to use the by-product to make plastic products.

However, conventional plastic can be a problem as it takes decades to degrade in the open environment, and it disintegrates into microplastics.  Fortunately this problem can be solved by using d2w biodegradable technology, so that if the bag or packaging escapes collection and ends up in the environment as litter on land or sea it will degrade and biodegrade (be consumed by bacteria and fungi) leaving nothing behind.  Just like nature’s wastes.

Paper is fantastic, so let’s save some trees and use paper for the things that only paper can do. Plastic is not the eco-villain it is made out to be, and when made with d2w it is much kinder to the planet.[3] 


I saw an article in Packing Insights on 28 Jun 2023 saying “Organic recycling to achieve a circular economy is taking over the spotlight of typical material recycling. Due to recycling’s limited capacity, the packaging industry has maintained its focus on increasing environmental sustainability but is moving away from recycling and toward biodegradable options. 

According to the “Centre Region Council of Governments,” organic recycling refers to the closed loop of activities involved in collecting and processing organic materials and using a recycled product – such as composting and biodegrading.”This is fine if the material will convert into compost, but plastics do not come into this category, because they do not convert into compost – they convert into CO2 gas in a composting facility.  There is nothing circular about this – it is a linear process which results in the eventual waste of the material by emission to atmosphere, providing nothing of value for the soil.

In addition, plastics marketed as compostable have a worse LCA than ordinary plastic.  See Life Cycle Assessment of Biodegradable, Compostable and Conventional Bags




Michael Stephen

Michael Stephen is a lawyer and was a member of the United Kingdom Parliament, where he served on the Environment Select Committee. When he left Parliament Symphony Environmental Technologies Plc. attracted his attention because of his interest in the environment. He is now Deputy Chairman of Symphony, which is listed on the AIM market of the London Stock Exchange, and is the founder and Chairman of the Biodegradable Plastics Association.

Earlier Postings in this Column

All articles from Michael Stephen

Interview with Michael Stephen

Questions and Answers on OXO-Biodegradability


The opinions expressed here by Michael Stephen and other columnists are their own, not those of

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