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Ask Baz

Paper or Plastic? (the facts behind our packaging)

The ‘Ask Baz’ blog endeavors to provide honest, in-depth answers to questions about Sea to Summit products.

One question which we’re asked occasionally is not about our products per se; it’s about our packaging. Specifically, some consumers wonder if it wouldn’t be more environmentally friendly to use paperboard rather than polypropylene. Well, packaging is something we’ve researched hard and thought long about. Here are some of our conclusions:

First of all, all products have to be packaged to protect them, to keep them clean and to allow the manufacturer to explain the function and benefits to the consumer.

We’ve chosen to use single polymer polypropylene (PP) for our packaging (and in the few cases where we have opted to use two materials, we make them easily separable for ease of recycling)

But – wouldn’t cardboard or paperboard be more environmentally friendly?
Well, not necessarily.

Producing and recycling polypropylene uses far less energy and creates less pollution than producing and recycling cardboard or paperboard. Polypropylene is a by-product from the production of gasoline, so using it doesn’t accelerate the rate at which fossil fuels are used up. Because it is a pure hydrocarbon it eventually breaks down to water and carbon dioxide, leaving no toxic residues. And – as I’ll explain in a moment – it’s far easier to recycle than paperboard. (‘Paperboard’ is just the technical name for the kind of compressed, layered cardboard used in most packaging).

OK – but paperboard is a natural product – doesn’t that make it better?

Not really. Harvesting and processing wood pulp uses fossil fuels, causes erosion and uses large quantities of water. Recycling paper uses far more water than recycling polypropylene, and – unless it is adequately sorted -paperboard may be recycled as lower-strength cardboard (which is referred to as ‘downcycling’)

Paperboard tears more easily than polypropylene, especially when hanging from a peg in a store. Retailers remove the otherwise perfect products in damaged packaging from the shelf and usually return these items to the distributor via a parcel service – which burns more fossil fuels.

So – about the only advantage paperboard has over polypropylene is that it breaks down more quickly.

OK – but why not use ‘bio-plastics’? 

Because they’re not a better solution. They are produced from crops, often GMOs, using large amounts of fossil fuel, fertilizer and insecticides and take up resources that are better suited to other uses, such as food production. Bio-plastics also contaminate the recycling chain. When they end up in landfill, they are more likely to break down slowly producing methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

One of the key advantages to polypropylene is that it can be very easily recycled – the offcuts produced during manufacture can simply be fed back into the manufacturing process.

So – it should be a simple matter for you the consumer to take polypropylene to your local recycling center. Unfortunately, some municipalities simply don’t recycle PP.

However, Whole Foods is running a program called ‘Gimme Five’ to give the consumer a viable recycling channel for the hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of yogurt pots, baked-goods ‘clamshells’, hummus containers and so on which are purchased annually . Stores in many locations collect #5 plastics and ship them to a manufacturer named Preserve, who transforms them into household articles:

Read more about the “Gimme 5” program

Find a #5 recycling location near you!

At Sea toSummit, seeking better solutions to waste and recycling is an ongoing process – and this thinking is factored into our choice of packaging. We conduct environmental audits (some of which produced the above information), and we work with organizations such as Carbon Conscious to monitor and minimize the environmental impact caused by our entire business.

If you have any specific questions about any of the information in this posting, as always – just ask.


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