Updated: Mar 2, 2021
This article is going to dispel the myths about cardboard boxes but not mean to whitewash plastic boxes. It's intended to offer an objective view on the two major packaging materials and to shift the balance a little between the two.
1.Are Cardboard Boxes Really Eco-friendly
Cardboard boxes are made of paper, which are totally biodegradable. In this sense, they are perfectly eco-friendly, not counting in the toxic substance in the print or during processing. But when we look at its upstream industry, it would be different story.
(1) Not so friendly raw material trees Eucalyptus
While cardboard gift boxes are fully biodegradable (if not laminated or otherwise attached with plastic), they are not necessarily eco-friendly. Most of the paper consumed in the world is made from trees. And currently the most common raw material trees for paper are eucalyptuses.
But eucalyptuses are not friendly to the environmental at all. First, planting eucalyptus will compromise the soil fertility. Second, they would badly drain the water content of the soil. So eucalyptuses will greatly cannibalize other plants and prevent them from growing in the same land. Besides, eucalyptus emits a strong pungent smell, causing discomfort to the human body. Therefore, many governments do not encourage eucalyptus planting.
(2) Pollution-laden Paper-making Industry
Paper-making process causes serious environmental pollution, not to mention its daunting power consumption in the process. Take its pollution of water in China as an example. In 2004, the total national industrial wastewater discharge is 22.41 billion tons, 3.18 billion tons (or 14.4%) of which is from the paper industry. In terms of COD (Chemical Oxygen Demand), the most important pollution indicator in wastewater, the total COD emissions of the country's industry are 5.097 million tons while the paper industry accounts for 33%. However, the contribution of papermaking to the country's GDP is only 2.2%!
In a word, a disadvantaged industry with an economic contribution of only 2.2% becomes the pollution leader of precious water resources with a discharge of 14.4% wastewater and 33% COD.
It's true that the pollution level can be improved with the advancement of paper making technology. But it's no denial that this is by no means an eco-friendly industry. Either Consumers are simply not aware of this, or may feel that they don't cause direct waste pollution which makes them at least no so guilty ethically.
2. Ban Plastic Totally, But Not the Right Time Yet
Plastic is notorious for its pollution and possible harm to our planet. It's shocking to learn about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or reports that marine animals swallowed plastic waste. We should totally ban any plastic from the earth. But it seems not yet to be the right time! Starting from 2008, China bans free plastic shopping bags nationwide. Now more than 10 years passed, expected outcome does not happen… It's not that consumers are so obsessed of plastics. It's that people just can't live without the benefits of plastics. Here are some of the reasons:
Water proof - Being plastic, they're water resistant and some plastic packaging boxes and bags are 100% water proof. Great if you need to ensure your stored items stay dry or keep wet items from soaking others. That's also why China didn't ban plastic shopping bags completely. That's maybe the ultimate feature of plastic that make it so popular among modern people.
Colors & transparency - Cardboard is usually brown whereas plastic storage boxes come in all sorts of bright colors and hues, from transparent red to bright aqua to cool grey to clear. Great if you want to color code your packaging boxes, or see through the contents of the boxes without having to open them.
Versatile Shapes - Plastic allows you the possibility to create whatever shapes you like. Especially when you need to display your personalized brand image in packaging. Just design and set up the injection molds, then they will be mass produced no matter how complex the shapes are, they can be manufactured quickly and literally identical.
Neither should we prioritize plastics over nor completely do away with it. At least, it's not the right time yet.
3. What Shall We Choose, Cardboard or Plastic Boxes?
It's not an either-A-or-B choice, instead the answer can be both A and B plus C.
(1) More choices: PLA or other biodegradable alternatives
PLA (polylactic acid) is a promising and presumably the most eco-friendly material so far. Like paper, it's also made from plants such as corn starch and can be composted in the environments within two years. And PLA packaging boxes have most of the merits of plastic boxes.
But in short term, PLA can impossibly achieve so high variety of properties of plastics. And its relatively high cost also hinders its popularity. We hope that researches on PLA and more plastic alternatives can be accelerated so that we can move earlier into an absolutely no-plastic era.
(2) Reduce, Reuse and Recycle
In the foreseeable future, we'll still have to face up the reality that both cardboard plastic boxes exist as the major packaging choices with some PLA packaging material as minor. But currently neither turns out to be a perfect solution. The best practice lies with Reduce, Reuse and Recycle! Stop single-use plastic packaging boxes or bags and advocate, encourage reuse and recycling.