Monday, July 1, 2024

Paper or Plastic?: "Amazon’s plans to shift its packaging strategy " (AMZN)

From Tedium, June 23:

Turn Off The Pillow Machines
Amazon’s plans to shift its packaging strategy points at a new front in the lengthy tug of war between paper and plastic—a war that started in grocery stores. 

Today in Tedium: If you’ve been buying stuff on Amazon lately, odds are you saw some interesting shifts in the packaging on your doorstep. More of it, perhaps not all, has been coming in packages completely made of paper or paper byproducts. That is an interesting trend, and it’s likely to continue in a big way, according to Amazon itself. The company announced this past week that it had made “its largest reduction in plastic packaging in North America to date,” and planned to replace 95 percent of plastic air pillows produced for its North American packaging with far more recyclable paper equivalents by the end of the year. In many ways, this is the latest round in a push-and-pull that has been happening between plastic and paper packaging over the past 40 years—with plastic mostly winning during that period, but paper winning the most recent rounds. Why? Today’s Tedium ponders paper, plastic, packaging, and baggage—the latter in more ways than one. — Ernie @ Tedium

Today’s issue is sponsored by TLDR; more from them in a second.

The year Sten Gustaf Thulin, a Swedish package designer for Celloplast, received the patent for “bag with handle of weldable plastic material.” This invention? Effectively, the modern grocery bag. Essentially, the bags were made as a giant extruded plastic tube, with the ends welded and parts cut off as needed. In other words, despite being completely different in use case than plastic air pillows, they’re essentially two variants of the same basic idea.
Remembering when paper bags were seen as worse than plastic ones
When I was a teenager, I worked in a grocery store. I was a “courtesy clerk,” which meant I was responsible for four things: retrieving carts, managing the bottle machines, putting back unpurchased goods, and (occasionally) bagging.

Despite the fact that a solid 50% of my job was managing a recycling apparatus, I remember that the modern consensus about single-use plastic bags wasn’t set at that time, and nobody was bringing in reusable bags at this juncture. (This was around the period in which American Beauty, a film with a scene built around a floating plastic bag, won an Oscar for Best Picture.) In fact, we tended to believe that plastic bags were somehow more environmentally friendly than the paper equivalents, and we were told to only use paper if the customer specifically asked for them.

That would be considered crazy talk today—nowadays, paper is seen as immensely more renewable. But the debate was a bit more up in the air than you believe.

The reason? Paper bags are resource-intensive to make. They also tend to be a bit heavier, and don’t handle rain particularly well. And then there’s the fact that paper bags require the chopping down of trees to make.

You may think I’m making stuff up, but the British Environmental Agency did in-depth research into the paper bag in a 2011 study about baggage options in general and found plenty of reasons to lean against the use of paper as a baggage option:

However, we analyzed the production of similar forms of paper and found the energy required from grid electricity contributed significantly to all impacts. The disposal of ash from paper production also has an impact on eutrophication and freshwater aquatic ecotoxicity. The production of palm oil for use in paper manufacture affects terrestrial ecotoxicity. Although the bags are produced in Europe, the distribution of the bags from the bag producers into the supermarkets via the UK importer is still noticeable in most impact categories. This is because of the impacts of road transport emissions on acidification, eutrophication, terrestrial ecotoxicity and photochemical oxidation, and the impacts of oil production for diesel on abiotic depletion, human toxicity and aquatic ecotoxicity.

While the study noted that paper’s long-term impact was lower than plastic, as it actually, y'know, biodegrades, paper comes with serious considerations on the front end, because of its ecologically heavy production process....