Corrugated Cardboard vs Plastic – who wins the sustainability contest?

As the world moves towards a more sustainable way of life, many companies have been switching away from plastic to corrugated cardboard packaging. So we thought we’d take a look at just how sustainable this move actually is. After all, there are some arguments for plastic packaging; the debate is complex.

Plastic is more durable than corrugated in many cases; fact. It also produces fewer emissions in production and transportation than cardboard and paper. However, we’ve all seen the distressing images of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, 1.8 billion pieces of floating plastic (three times the size of France), floating between California and Hawaii, the world’s most extensive ocean waste repository. And, of course, the harrowing pictures of marine wildlife strangled by plastic bags and ingesting so many plastic particles that end up in the food chain.

Even though the initial perception is that paper/cardboard is a lot more environmentally friendly, we also need to consider the carbon emissions created during cardboard and plastic packaging production. Environmental considerations arise not just during the manufacturing process; the greenhouse gasses released when sourcing raw materials and the emissions created when disposing of the end products are also significant.
So, which is genuinely more sustainable? First, let’s look at the reasons for and against Cardboard vs Plastic packaging when considering their impact on the environment.

The Carbon Footprint of Manufacturing each Product

The creation of plastic accounts for 3.8% of global greenhouse gas emissions; as a comparison, that’s almost double that produced by the entire aviation industry. Despite that, plastic can be more efficient to manufacture than cardboard and has less waste during the process. However, much of plastic’s carbon footprint comes from the extraction and transport of raw materials – oil and gas – which produces significantly higher emissions when incinerated.

>It is true that cardboard products also require a significant amount of energy to source and produce. However, the global carbon footprint of the cardboard industry is relatively low, only around 1%. Manufacturers tend to use renewable energy sources such as biomass, biogas, and hydroelectricity. In many cases, paper and cardboard factories use their waste products as a source of fuel.

Also, corrugated cardboard is often produced without dyes or bleaches, further reducing its footprint and recyclability level.

Corrugated board is an eco-friendly packaging material comprised of recyclable materials like used cardboard and old newspapers. Among the most widely recycled material globally, some corrugated board is made from 100% recycled materials! The average composition is from 70 to 90% recycled materials, which still beats plastic packaging by a long shot. [Source: Smithers]

Corrugated packaging is also reusable – many times, boxes are folded up and stored for use again in offices, at home and in some stores. Recycling is a far better option as opposed to allowing chemicals to contaminate our oceans. Sometimes, however, it is more energy-intensive to recycle certain types of plastic. In addition, some materials, such as food pouches and polystyrene, are technically recyclable but are unlikely to be recycled.


Of all the plastic ever created, 91% is not recycled [Source – National Geographic]. While the recycling rates of solid waste have been gradually increasing, many of the items we use and discard every day end up in an incinerator. In the EU, for example, the breakdowns for the disposal of plastic vs cardboard waste:
  • Plastic: 40% is recycled, 30% is sent to landfill, and 30% is incinerated.
  • Cardboard: 86% is recycled, 10% is sent to landfill, and 7% is incinerated.
[Source The Ecobahn]

Remember that there are other advantages to recycling that aren’t as obvious, such as the significant savings of energy and water.

How biodegradable is it really?

 Cardboard is an entirely biodegradable product in the short term, unlike plastic that is not and requires a complex industrial process. As a result, cardboard has a clear advantage over plastic when breaking down, although it does release greenhouse gasses in the process.

Light breaks plastic down, so it photo-degrades rather than biodegrades. Estimates say that this process can take up to 500 or even 1000 years in landfills only solution is to recycle as much waste as possible, especially with plastic. Many global companies are finding processes to reuse plastic waste from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is excellent news for the whole planet.[source: Pollutions On Line]


Packaging boom

 It doesn’t take a scientist to tell us how the delivery/e-commerce sector has boomed in recent years, particularly in 2020. Many companies and new start-ups seek to reduce their packaging and switch to more sustainable options, leading to a year-on-year increase in packaging volumes. [Source The Future of Global Packaging to 2020 by Smithers Pira]

Many of the UK’s big retail brands have shown a recent move towards more eco-friendly packaging. For example, Marks and Spencer and H&M have both now replaced plastic produce bags with paper versions. Whilst Europe’s largest fashion only e-tailer, Zalando, has pledged to eliminate single-use plastics by 2023.

Recently, while working on his Sustainable Markets Initiative HRH, The Prince of Wales commented on how private businesses have moved a lot quicker than he ever thought possible in dealing with sustainability. “I have noticed considerable change in urgency on environmental issues in the last 18 months.”[Source Amanda Atwood interview]


The critical takeaway for e-commerce companies is that whether using cardboard or plastic, reducing the thickness and weight of packaging plays a vital role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Corrugated cardboard is incredibly versatile and customizable. It provides a high level of protection at a low cost that just cannot be beaten by most alternatives.


Why corrugated cardboard is king

 Corrugated board is an eco-friendly packaging material comprised of recyclable materials like used cardboard boxes and old newspapers. In addition, corrugated cardboard is often produced without dyes or bleaches, further reducing its footprint and level of recyclability.

Since it is sustainably produced using a high percentage of recycled materials, the energy required to manufacture corrugated packaging is significantly reduced. Often made from locally available recycled materials, transportation costs for manufacturing remain lower than if the materials had to be imported or freighted long distances. Added benefits!


All in all, cardboard has become one of the most ‘green’ logistical packaging solutions available globally. If you are looking for an eco-friendly yet economical packaging solution to fit your needs, ask the expert team here at the Reedbut Group.  We provide premium packaging solutions to an eclectic mix of clients across many sectors. Our experienced engineers will custom design an environmentally friendly and efficient packaging solution to suit your needs.