Plastic vs Cardboard packaging

Recyclable Plastic versus recycled: more than black or white


The plastic packaging industry has changed a lot and it is still evolving significantly. Yet, more transparency is crucial. A clear distinction needs to be made between recyclable and recycled. For the average person, these terms are (or should be) interchangeable. Recyclable plastic, however, isn’t necessarily being recycled. Symbols of chasing arrows mean recycling to most of us, which makes it seem as if the plastic is being recycled. However, these symbols were never meant to guarantee recyclability to the consumer, but to assist recycling facilities in sorting different types of plastic. Depending on the location, some plastics may not be accepted into the waste management system. As a result, consumers are left confused or misled, and the packaging industry hasn’t been sufficiently candid about that.

Recycling paper

Recycling is obviously the better option as opposed to allowing chemicals contaminate our oceans. Sometimes, however, it is more energy-intensive to recycle certain types of plastic. Some materials, such as food pouches and polystyrene, are technically recyclable but are very unlikely to ever be recycled. It's unsure whether it is actually better for the environment to recycle them or not because of the higher rate of carbon emissions associated with transportation and their lightweight properties. It could be that there is a trade-off between carbon emissions and recyclability – do we have to choose between limiting climate change and plastic free oceans? For pouches specifically, only a couple of facilities worldwide are equipped to recycle them. Shipping these materials halfway across the globe just for the sake of recycling them, would generate a much higher carbon footprint, not to mention cost multiplication. Has recycling become self-defeating at this stage? It indeed is be very hard to see what would be the best thing to do, because there is no way to accurately measure and compare either one of the outcomes. So, even today, there is still a lot of plastic being produced that can barely be recycled.

Will plastic really last forever?


Nearly a third of all produced plastics leaks into our ecosystems where it can stay around for hundreds of years. Fortunately, it’s not all doom and gloom. The plastic narrative is nuanced, and so are its solutions. That is what big brands and retailers are starting to understand: the solution for a more sustainable and innovative future would be lots and lots of different initiatives combined, and every little bit counts. There is little point in blindly starting to recycle, because there is just no market for some plastics. Who is going to use the recycled plastics once we produce it, remains a major challenge. There are many commendable initiatives, such as Terracycle recycling formerly unrecyclable plastics . It’s a great initiative partnering with some very famous brands, yet it’s downcycling the value to low-quality plastic. The question we need to ask ourselves is whether recycling is the only answer, and of course it is not. In the end, we want to invest in higher-quality solutions, such as plastic recracking , which are economically viable for more sustainable results.

According to the 2017 report ‘The New Plastics Economy: Catalysing action’, developed by the World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, we should build for a more circular economy, never allowing plastic to become waste or pollution. It offers an action plan, endorsed by over 40 industry leaders, to boost recycling and reuse of plastic packaging up to 70%, while aiming for 30% innovation and redesign.


“We urgently need to transform global plastic packaging material flows if we are to continue to reap the benefits of this versatile material [...].”

Quote: Paul Polman, CEO, Unilever

For this purpose, three strategies are called for to transform the global plastic packaging industry. First, we need to eliminate all problematic and unnecessary plastic by radically increasing recycling rates and improving its quality. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation says that “without fundamental redesign and innovation, about 30% of plastic packaging will never be reused or recycled.” The foundation encourages companies to explore new technologies, such as chemical recycling, to reprocess currently unrecyclable plastic packaging into new plastics, or promote compostable packaging. Second, reusing plastics offers an economically attractive opportunity for at least 20% of plastic packaging. That’s why we need to introduce innovative packaging strategies to ensure that the plastics we really need are reusable, recyclable, or compostable. Plus, develop new circular models in which reusable packaging replace single-use packaging. And third, we need to circulate all the plastic items we use by making better use of packaging to keep them in the economy and out of the environment. Redesign packaging and the systems for managing it after use could reinforce recycling as an economically attractive alternative to landfill, incineration and energy recovery for the remaining 50% of plastic packaging.

Cardboard packaging as the holy grail


The packaging industry consciously needs to choose for smarter packaging in which cardboard can definitely play a huge role. Some changes are straightforward:

Quick wins

More often than not, plastics solutions are complex, but relatively easy, sustainable solutions do exist. Here are some quick wins DS Smith that recommends:

  • Shrink wrap

A very obvious and unnecessary use of plastics is shrink wrap on bottles and cans. Just get rid of it. It has no real benefits over corrugated trays and can easily can be designed out by making simple changes to the tray.

  • Punnets

Fruits and vegetables are often transported in punnets. The plastics that are now used for punnets are one of the least recyclable. Plastic punnets could easily be replaced by paper punnets and soon alternatives to the flow wrap will also be developed.

  • Polystyrene

The material is lightweight, but very not economically viable to recycle. Polystyrene will probably disappear in the next decade. You can eliminate it altogether by using right size cardboard packaging with proper protective qualities – it’s so obvious.

  • Void fill in e-commerce

Bubble wrap or pouches are all made of flexible film, but it has only a recycling rate of between 7-15%. There are very obvious fixes: corrugated, paper bubble wrap, right size packaging.

Again, there is not one simple solution that will stop plastic from pollution our oceans. Cardboard is not the holy grail – as you may know by now the narrative usually is more complex – but we should try to use it more often. There are some exciting new materials with corrugated cardboard, such as fully home compostable film or innovative creations putting cardboard to new use. Take disposable coffee cups, for example. While we all know using a reusable coffee cup is better for the environment, many of us still don’t. DS Smith launched a scheme to collect and recycle single-use coffee cups from independent UK businesses with our specially designed Coffee Cup Drop Box , with which could see hundreds of millions of cups recycled each year.

Would you like to know more about how DS Smith tackles plastic replacement? Please check our whitepaper: Transforming the supermarket aisle 

Sam Jones
Sam Jones Sustainability Strategy and Communications Manager

About the expert

Sam is responsible for oversight of the Group sustainability strategy and its ongoing development and coordination through the Group Sustainability Committee. Complimentary to this he is responsible for leveraging DS Smith's sustainability credentials to maximise value with internal and external stakeholders, including customers, investors, employees and regulators, capturing the value and benefits for the business.