Paper or Plastic? In a Circular Economy, the Answer is Clear

By Kathi Rowzie, President, Two Sides North America

In today’s industrial marketplace, the concept of a circular economy is finally inching beyond theoretical ideals to real-world applications that will make our planet healthier and more sustainable. But becoming truly circular doesn’t come easy or cheap. It’s a challenge that requires intent, investment and innovation. The paper industry figured this out decades ago, and it has been at the leading edge of circularity ever since.

In fact, paper manufacturing exemplifies the very definition of circularity – industrial processes and economic activities that are 1) restorative or regenerative by design, 2) enable resources used to maintain their highest value for as long as possible, and 3) aim to eliminate waste through the superior design of materials, products and systems. Most alternatives don’t even come close. Take plastics, for example.

Plastic packaging is made from a variety of plastic resins. These include polyethylene terephthalate (PET) soft drink and water bottles, high-density polyethylene (HDPE) milk and water jugs, film products (including bags and sacks) made of low-density polyethylene (LDPE) and other containers and packaging (including clamshells, trays, caps, lids, egg cartons, loose fill, produce baskets, coatings and closures) made up of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polystyrene (PS), polypropylene (PP) and other resins (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency). All of these resins are derived from non-renewable fossil fuels, namely natural gas, feedstocks derived from natural gas processing, and feedstocks derived from crude oil refining (U.S. Energy Information Administration).

Single-use plastics also are incredibly energy-intensive to produce. In fact, plastic production accounts for more than 3% of total U.S. energy consumption and generates large amounts of carbon pollution (U.S. Department of Energy).

Plastics are a rapidly growing segment of the U.S. solid waste stream and, critical to any discussion of circularity, very little of it gets recycled (U.S. EPA). Drawing on the most recent EPA data available and last year’s plastic-waste exports, a new report published by environmental organizations Beyond Plastics and The Last Beach Cleanup estimates that Americans recycled only 5% to 6% of their plastics, down from the 8.7% reported by the EPA in 2018. But the real figure could be even lower, the report said, given factors such as the plastic waste collected for recycling that is instead sent to cement kilns and burned. The report states that, “Despite the stark failure of plastics recycling, the plastics, packaging and products industries have waged a decades-long misinformation campaign to perpetuate the myth that plastic is recyclable.”

“Plastics recycling does not work, it never will work, and no amount of false advertising will change that,” Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics and former EPA regional administrator, said in a press release.

“There is no circular economy for plastics,” added Jan Dell, founder of The Last Beach Cleanup. “Plastics and products companies co-opted the success of other materials recycling and America’s desire to recycle to create the myth that plastic is recyclable.”

The life cycle of paper tells a different story.

Paper products are manufactured using an infinitely renewable natural resource – trees that are purpose-grown, harvested and re-grown in sustainably managed forests. Thanks in great part to the sustainable forestry practices and third-party forest certification advanced by the paper industry, net U.S. forest area increased around 18 million acres over the past 30 years (U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization).

The paper manufacturing process uses mostly renewable, carbon-neutral energy generated from biomass which, when burned, recycles biogenic carbon (carbon absorbed from the atmosphere and stored in trees) back into the environment. This fact, combined with investments in energy efficiency and process improvements helped the U.S. paper industry reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions per ton of product produced by 24.1% between 2005 and 2020 (American Forest and Paper Association). According to the U.S. EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory, the pulp and paper industry is not a major contributor to climate change. In 2020, the industry was responsible for 0.6% of total CO2e emissions, compared to 0.5% in 2019. The industry’s actual emissions were slightly lower in 2020, but increased as a percentage of total emissions, which decreased 11% due to the reduction in transportation-related fossil fuel emissions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Water used in the manufacturing process at a typical U.S. paper mill is recycled up to 10 times. Then it’s cleaned to meet strict state and federal water quality standards and most of it, around 90%, is returned to its source. About 1% remains in the manufactured paper products, and the rest evaporates back into the environment (National Council on Air and Stream Improvement, NCASI). And mills that produce kraft pulp have highly efficient recovery systems that capture and recycle about 97% of pulping chemicals (NCASI).

While all of these unique environmental characteristics make paper arguably one of the most sustainable products on earth, it’s the paper industry’s investment in recycling infrastructure that makes the paper life cycle truly circular. Over the past 30 years, the U.S. industry has voluntarily bankrolled billions of dollars in recycling infrastructure, including $5 billion in investments announced or planned between 2019 and 2024. Today, 94% of Americans have access to a community paper recycling program, and 79% have access to residential/curbside recycling programs, this according to a comprehensive national study commissioned by AF&PA in 2021.

Because paper recycling is accessible and easy, U.S. businesses and consumers have embraced it in a big way. With a recycling rate of 68% (AF&PA), paper is the most recycled material in the United States (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency), and that number jumps to a remarkable 91.4% for cardboard packaging (AF&PA).

Click here for even more facts about paper’s contributions to a more sustainable, circular economy.


New Two Sides Survey Shows U.S. Consumers Believe Paper-based Packaging is Better for the Environment than Other Packaging Materials

Packaging Preferences Unpacked


CHICAGO – June 9, 2021 –  With physical stores closed during the pandemic, the boom in online shopping resulted in record numbers of packages arriving on consumers’ doorsteps. Along with all that merchandise came a growing awareness of the materials used to package and ship products, and the impact those materials have on the environment. A new survey commissioned by Two Sides North America and conducted by international research firm Toluna found that U.S. consumers believe paper-based packaging is better for the environment than other packaging materials.

Paper: The preferred and sustainable packaging choice

Survey respondents were asked to rank their preferred packaging material (paper/cardboard, plastic, glass and metal) based on 15 environmental, aesthetic and practical attributes. Overall, paper/cardboard packaging was preferred for 10 of the 15 attributes, with half of respondents saying paper/cardboard is better for the environment. Consumers also preferred paper/cardboard packaging on other environmental attributes, including being home compostable (65%) and easier to recycle (44%).

Glass packaging was preferred by consumers for four practical and aesthetic attributes, including being reusable (39%), having a preferred look and feel (39%), providing a better image for the brand (38%) and better protection (35%).  45% preferred metal packaging for being strong and robust. Plastic packaging was not preferred for any of the 15 attributes but was ranked second for six attributes. Only one in 10 respondents believe plastic packaging is better for the environment.

Consumers demand that brands and retailers do more

Brands and retailers play a crucial role in driving innovation and the use of recyclable packaging. In response to increasing consumer pressure to operate more sustainably, brands and retailers in many sectors, from wine, spirits and soft drinks to candy, cosmetics and apparel are shifting from plastic to paper packaging.

The survey found that 49% of consumers would buy more from brands and retailers who remove plastic from their packaging, and 39% would consider avoiding a retailer that is not actively trying to reduce their use of non-recyclable packaging.

“It’s important for consumers to understand that just because packaging is recyclable does not mean it actually gets recycled,” explains Two Sides North America President Kathi Rowzie. “Around 66% of all paper and paper-based packaging and nearly 89% of corrugated cardboard gets recycled into new products in the U.S. These high recycling rates and expected increases are due to the paper industry’s already completed and continuing investment in recycling infrastructure, which between 2019 and 2023 will exceed $4 billion. In comparison, the U.S. Environmental Protection reports that plastics, glass and metals are recycled at just 9%, 25% and 34%, respectively.”

Who should be responsible for reducing waste from single-use packaging?

As consumers, businesses and governments looks for ways to create a more sustainable, circular economy, waste from single-use packaging, particularly in marine environments, has come into sharp focus. When consumers were asked who has the greatest responsibility for reducing the use of non-recyclable, single-use packaging, more than a third (36%) said individuals have the primary responsibility, followed by 23% who believe it’s up to brands and retailers, 23% who believe it’s up to packaging manufacturers, and 18% who believe it’s the government’s responsibility.

“As the call for the circularity of product lifecycles grows louder, paper has always had a head start,” Rowzie says. “And the industry’s strong support and investment in recycling has transformed the circularity of paper packaging from vision to reality. At a time when there is growing alarm about the low recycled rates of other packaging materials, paper recycling is a striking exception.”

About Two Sides North America, Inc.

Two Sides North America ( is an independent, non-profit organization that promotes the sustainability of print, paper and paper-based packaging, and dispels common environmental misconceptions about paper products. We are part of the Two Sides global network which operates across North America, South America, Europe, Australia and South Africa.

About the survey

The survey, Paper’s Place in a Post-pandemic World, queried a random sample of 1,000 adults aged 18 and older across the United States in January 2021.


Media contact

Kathi Rowzie, President

Two Sides North America, Inc.

P:  937-999-7729




Most U.S. Consumers Polled Say Paper-based Packaging is Better for the Environment

Two Sides North America Announces Results of Packaging Preferences 2020 Survey

As U.S. consumers become increasingly aware of the environmental impact of their packaging choices, a majority believe paper-based packaging is better for the environment, according to the results of Two Sides North America’s 2020 U.S. Packaging Preferences Survey.  The survey, which was conducted by independent consumer research company Toluna, sought to understand consumer preferences, perceptions and attitudes toward various types of packaging.

Respondents were asked to rank their preferred packaging materials (paper/cardboard, glass, metal and plastic) based on 15 environmental, practical and visual/tactile attributes.  Overall, paper/cardboard packaging ranked highest on 11 of the 15 attributes, with 66% of respondents saying paper/cardboard packaging is better for the environment.  Consumers also ranked paper/cardboard packaging highest on other environmental attributes, including being home compostable (69%) and easier to recycle (51%).

Glass packaging ranked highest among consumers on three practical and tactile/visual attributes, including being reusable (36%), having a preferred look and feel (32%) and providing better protection (29%).  Nearly half of respondents (47%) ranked metal packaging highest for being strong and robust.  Plastic packaging was not ranked highest for any of the 15 attributes but was ranked second highest for seven attributes.

“Interest in sustainable packaging continues to gain momentum as consumers become more aware of how various packaging materials impact the environment,” says Two Sides North America President Phil Riebel. “Our survey shows that U.S. consumers recognize paper-based packaging’s environmentally sustainable characteristics, but some areas remain misunderstood, particularly paper’s high recycling rate.”

The survey showed that paper/cardboard is correctly considered by consumers to be the most recycled packaging material, but only 24% think the U.S. recycling rate for paper/cardboard packaging exceeds 60%. In fact, 73% of all paper-based packaging in the United States is recycled, and 88% of cardboard is recycled, according to the most recent data available from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Consumer attitudes toward plastic are clear, with 57% of survey respondents indicating they are actively taking steps to reduce their use of plastic packaging. While consumers believe plastic packaging is the second-most recycled after paper/cardboard packaging, most respondents significantly overestimate the plastic packaging recycling rate, believing it to be between two and more than five times greater than the actual rate of 13%.[1]

Metal packaging is perceived to have the third highest recycling rate and glass packaging comes in fourth.  With latest available figures showing actual recycling rates of 73% and 34%[2], respectively, the level of recycling for these packaging materials also is widely misjudged.

The survey also found that consumers across the United States are willing to change their behavior to shop more sustainably. Nearly 4 in 10 (38%) are willing to spend more on a product if it is packaged using sustainable materials, and more than a third (36%) said they would consider avoiding a retailer who is not taking steps to reduce their use of non-recyclable packaging.

“Awareness of sustainable packaging choices is becoming a driving force in consumer purchasing decisions, which in turn is influencing businesses to rethink their packaging strategies, particularly in the retail sector,” Riebel says. “The culture of make, use and dispose is gradually changing.”

The wide-ranging Packaging Preferences Survey also explored consumer perceptions of various U.S. retailers’ efforts to increase their use of environmentally friendly packaging, awareness of forest certification and environmental labels, and preferences in shopping bag materials.

To read the full report, please visit

[1] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2017

[2] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2017


New Two Sides Fact Sheet Explains Why Paper Bags Are “The Natural Choice”

There is increasing concern about the overuse of plastic bags and in particular, their contribution to marine litter. As a result of plastic pollution in the oceans, governments, retailers and other entities are taking action by introducing bans, fees and other initiatives to limit their use. As all concerned strive to reduce unnecessary packaging as part of a circular, less wasteful economy, paper bags, because of their inherent renewable and recyclable attributes, present an attractive, practical and natural alternative to plastic bags.  READ MORE

New Two Sides Infographic Shows Why Paper Bags are The Natural Choice

Two Sides North America today released an engaging new infographic that shows why paper bags, because of their inherent renewable and recyclable attributes, are an attractive, practical and natural alternative to plastic bags.

Citing authoritative sources, this infographic addresses the growing concern about the overuse of plastic bags and in particular, their contribution to marine litter. For example, according to the World Resources institute, each year about 8 million metric tons of plastic litter ends up in the ocean, where it can harm fish and wildlife and, once it enters the food chain, threaten human health. The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that several states have banned single-use plastic bags and hundreds of municipalities have banned or imposed fees on their use, and the Office of the Prime Minister has announced that Canada expects to ban all single-use plastics, including plastic bags, as early as 2021.

The infographic also highlights some of the key reasons why paper bags are a sustainable alternative.

  • Compared to other materials, paper-based goods produced in a sustainable manner can be a wise choice because they come from a renewable resource – trees, the product of sunlight, soil, nutrients and water (World Resources Institute).
  • Paper is one of the most recycled materials in North America with a recovery rate of 68% in the United States and 70% in Canada (American Forest and Paper Association, Forest Products Association of Canada).
  • In a 2019 survey in the United States and Canada, consumers ranked paper as the second most environmentally friendly material (behind wood) out of 8 different materials and products. Plastics ranked seventh (Toluna and Two Sides).

“As all concerned strive to reduce unnecessary packaging as part of a circular, less wasteful economy, businesses and consumers can be confident that using paper bags is a responsible choice,” says Two Sides North America President Phil Riebel. “The raw material used for paper bags made in the U.S. and Canada comes from sustainably managed forests where trees are grown, harvested and regrown in accordance with responsible forest management practices, environmental regulations and globally recognized forest certification standards, and the U.S. and Canada are world leaders in paper recycling. That’s why paper bags are a natural choice.”

Download the new Two Sides new infographic here.

About Two Sides 

Two Sides North America is an independent, non-profit organization, and is part of the Two Sides global network which includes more than 600 member companies across North America, South America, Europe, Australia and South Africa. Our member companies span the Graphic Communications and Paper-based Packaging value chain, including forestry, pulp, paper, paper-based packaging, chemicals and inks, pre-press, press, finishing, printing, publishing, envelopes and postal operations. For more information about Two Sides North America, visit us at and follow us on FacebookLinkedIn, and Twitter.

Contact Two Sides at:


P:  1-855-896-7433