The hype about paper instead of plastic - is it really the better alternative?

December 12, 2021
min reading time

Is paper really a better alternative?

It has become common to replace the big villain among packaging: Replacing plastic with supposedly more environmentally friendly packaging materials such as cardboard or paper. This is particularly noticeable in the area of single-use. But is paper really that much more environmentally friendly than plastic? In this article, we would like to use a worldwatchers Product Carbon Footprints example to shed light on the darker side of paper packaging.

Most of us store for gifts in the run-up to Christmas, whether in-store or online, and carry our purchases around in a variety of packaging. Packaging is beneficial to businesses because it 1) protects the product, 2) is an advertising medium, and 3) makes it easier to transport the product. However, packaging causes significant environmental damage, both during production and at end-of-life. At worldwatchers, we looked at the environmental issues surrounding plastic and paper and used a carrier bag product carbon footprint (PCF) to compare these two types of packaging as well as another alternative.

In 2018, the consumption of paper/cardboard packaging in Germany was around 8.3 million tons, and that of plastic packaging around 3.2 million tons. This shows that we will hardly be able to do without packaging in various areas of life in the future and underscores the importance of taking it into account in product carbon footprints.

To better compare the carbon footprints of these two materials, worldwatchers' CO2 experts conducted a PCF analysis of a paper bag and a plastic bag. For a better comparison of alternatives to plastic bags and paper bags, two further PCF analyses of an EU and non-EU cotton bag were carried out.

Calculation methodology

For the comparison of carrier bags, the product carbon footprints are calculated using the bottom-up calculation method and the "cradle to cradle" calculation framework for one conventional plastic bag and one paper bag. This means that the carbon footprint of the product is assessed from raw material, production through use and disposal. For the alternative, a PCF "cradle to point of sales" of one conventional cotton carrier bag and one cotton carrier bag "made in EU" each is also calculated. This means that the carbon footprint of the product from raw material and manufacturing. Only Greenhouse Gas emissions are included in this analysis and not other environmental impacts, such as microplastics. Assumptions underlying the calculation are at the end of the article.

Paper vs. plastic: Which is better?

According to a study conducted in several EU countries by the TwoSides organization, paper and cardboard packaging is top of mind among consumers when it comes to sustainability for many reasons, including being compostable at home (72%), better for the environment (62%) and easier to recycle (57%).

The comparison of cardboard and plastic packaging shows that cardboard emits less harmful CO2e due to its material properties. A 25 g paper bag with a recycled content of 75% has a PCF of 42.6 g CO2e, while a 20 g polypropylene plastic bag with a recycled content of 10% generates 58.7 g CO2e over its entire life cycle. Thus, the paper bag generates almost 28% less CO2e than the plastic bag.

This is largely due to the fact that, unlike plastic, it is a material that is biodegradable and also contains fewer chemicals. However, when it comes to the environment, although the recycling system for paper in Germany reaches a record high: according to the Federal Environment Agency, the recycling rate was 75% in 2018, large amounts of wood, water, energy and chemicals are used for production. To this end, the paper industry is also one of the five most energy-intensive industries in Germany (according to the Federal Environment Agency, the production of one ton of paper from fresh wood fibers requires as much energy as the production of one ton of steel). In addition, the water intensity in paper production is considerable.

Paper - a false image?!

Numerous regulations have been introduced in the EU and Germany to protect forests. About 80% of the raw materials used in Germany for paper production come from abroad. 40% of the pulp used in German paper mills comes from Scandinavia. Finland, in turn, imports some of its wood from Russia, where virgin forests are also being cut down. Tropical regions are also affected. Germany, for example, imports almost a quarter of its pulp from Brazil. There, virgin forests are disappearing dramatically due to overuse. In addition, a large proportion of the wood is cut illegally. Thus, the use of pulp for paper production in Germany indirectly contributes to global forest destruction. In addition, another rebound effect occurs that influences the water footprint: due to the import of pulp and paper, the water consumption is actually significantly higher than the water demand of the German paper industry.

A question of durability

According to the study by TwoSides, 62% of Europeans surveyed see paper/cardboard as better for the environment. However, 27% of respondents said they reuse a paper bag 2 to 3 times, followed by 22% who usually use it only once. This result contrasts with the result for plastic bags. This is because 25% of the respondents would reuse a plastic bag more than 10 times. This can be explained primarily by the different durability of the two materials. Plastic is waterproof due to its chemical composition, which makes it difficult to biodegrade but more robust. Paper, on the other hand, is not waterproof and is therefore easier to biodegrade, but it is also more fragile and therefore less reusable.

Disposal makes the difference

As mentioned in the assumptions, despite the recycling quota, the majority of plastic packaging used in Germany ends up in landfills in Southeast Asia. This is because everything that ends up in a sorting plant and is recycled is considered recycled. However, this also includes exports abroad. Unfortunately, it is difficult for us as consumers to ensure that packaging is actually recycled when it reaches landfills abroad. The reality is that our packaging pollutes the landscape there and often finds its way into rivers, seas and oceans. Since plastic is not biodegradable, the plastic bag can cause numerous environmental and health hazards, such as leaking harmful chemicals that spread to groundwater, landing in the oceans causing marine animals to ingest microplastics, and so on.

What does this mean for the end consumer?

As we know, plastic has many disadvantages. In the form of bags, it suffocates marine life, breaks down into microplastics that contaminate the environment, and pollutes nature. However, the paper or cardboard alternative can be just as harmful when it comes to manufacturing, transportation and end of life (recycling or incineration). So it's about rethinking our consumption to reduce it in general. That's why it's about consuming smarter i.e. preferring local products and products with little or no packaging, regardless of the type of packaging. At best, to minimize the carbon footprint of packaging, it's about reusing it for as long as possible. Finally, other measures can make a real difference, such as changing "standard" systems where packaging is optional or only available on request for certain products.

Reusable instead of disposable

Finally, and returning to our bag example, we would like to highlight the importance of their reusability. The paper bag produces almost 28% less CO2 than the plastic bag, with CO2 emissions of 42.6 g versus 58.7 g. The cotton bag, on the other hand, would release about ten times more CO2 than the paper bag at 429.4 g per bag produced. However, the EU cotton alternative, while likely more expensive to purchase, is much better for the environment in terms of CO2 emissions. This bag would release 37% less CO2 than a bag made from traditional cotton. So the EU cotton bag would release 6.4 times more CO2 than the paper bag, but its long-term use should make up for this difference in emissions. The best option will always be to use a locally made bag made from sturdy, eco-based materials that can be used over and over again and repaired whenever possible. Reuse applies not only to bags, but also to other product and packaging categories such as coffee cups, parcel packaging, etc. After all, the product carbon footprint also depends on the product's lifespan and how we as consumers handle it. In addition, we can learn a lot from unpacking stores - and try to transfer the philosophy and method into complex supply chains of companies and of course into other areas of life in our private lives.

Calculation methodology - assumptions

The calculation is based on the following assumptions:

  • Cotton, paper bags and plastic bags weigh 75 g, 25 g and 20 g respectively.
  • Made in EU" cotton bag is made of EU cotton and is produced in the EU.
  • Plastic bags are made of polypropylene.
  • Paper and plastic bags consist of 75% and 10% recycled material, respectively. For the CO2 analysis, it is assumed that the materials are either incinerated or recycled. In reality, however, 90% of them end up in a landfill.
  • Assumption about carrier bag usage is not included in cradle to point of sales because unfortunately there is no data on usage.


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Corréard, V. (2021, March 7). Zéro déchet : gourde et tote bag pas toujours écolos.

Greenpeace Wuppertal (2015). Save paper - recycle - use forests ecologically.

Iggesund Paperboar (2020). Pourquoi le papier est-il préférable au plastique?

IPV Industrieverband Papier- und Folienverpackung e.V. (2019, October 18). Are paper bags really harmful to the environment? Fact check around paper carrier bags.

Jonas, U. (2020, March 11). What's really happening to our plastic waste? 7 responses. Focus Online.

Knoblauch, J. A. (2020, April 9). Environmental toll of plastics. Environmental Health News.

Two Sides (2020). The Packaging Report 2020.

Environmental Agency Germany (2018, August 23). Paper production, paper consumption and the consequences for the environment.

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