It's necessary to consider numerous factors to answer this question.
Source of raw materials: Most plastics are made from fossil fuel-derived synthetic resins (polymers) through the industrial process of polymerisation. Oil is a finite, non-renewable resource. Paper with Sappi, on the other hand, is made from wood, a renewable resource grown in sustainably managed forests. We use independently audited third-party forest certification systems to guarantee that the wood used for pulp and paper production complies with the principles of sustainable plantation and forest management.
We do not endorse one certification as ‘better’ than another. Our goal is to use as much independently certified wood as possible, which is why we have pursued and achieved certification by the three most internationally recognised forest products certification programmes: Forest Stewardship Council™ (FSC™ N003159); Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification™ (PEFC/01-44-43) and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative® (SFI®).
Fuel sources: Most fuels used in the manufacturing of plastics are fossil-based. Burning fossil fuels such as coal and gas releases carbon that has been stored (locked-up) safely within the earth’s crust as coal, oil or gas for millions of years. The carbon released into the atmosphere, in the form of greenhouse gases, is responsible for climate change.
Burning renewable biofuels on the other hand, releases only the carbon stored in the biomass – a carbon-neutral process. We make extensive use of biofuels throughout our manufacturing processes in integrated pulp and paper mills. Globally in 2021, 52.4% of the energy we generated was derived from renewable resources, mainly black liquor, sludges and biomass.
Biodegradability: Materials – such as plastic, styrofoam and polystyrene – cannot be readily processed by nature. Some may photo-degrade (break up into smaller pieces when exposed to sunlight), but cannot be naturally assimilated back into the ecosystem in the same way that paper can.
Under normal environmental conditions (not in a landfill, where the process takes much longer), some plastics like PET, often used to make plastic bottles, take 450 years to degrade and, even then, they will leave toxic residues in the soil and water. Some hard plastics may never degrade. Paper, being derived from woodfibre, is strong, versatile, beautiful, reusable and recyclable. It's also generally biodegradable. In seawater conditions, paper biodegrades within 2 to 8 weeks, assimilated by nature without leaving any toxic residue.
What's the difference between biodegradable and non-biodegradable?
Biodegradable organic materials, such as paper, can be broken down by micro-organisms into simple naturally occurring compounds such as water and carbon dioxide and recycled into the ecosystem. Non-biodegradable materials, such as plastic, styrofoam and polystyrene cannot be recycled by nature in this way. Some may photo-degrade – when exposed to sunlight, they break up into smaller pieces. However, these fragments cannot be reabsorbed into nature as useful compounds in the same way that paper can.
Where does all the plastic go?
It's estimated that out of the 100 million tons of plastic produced each year, approximately 10% ends up in the sea.
The world’s largest garbage dumps are the Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch and the more recently discovered North Atlantic Garbage Patch. The former is estimated to be approximately the size of South Africa. These patches are made up almost entirely of discarded post-consumer plastic products that photo-degrade into even smaller fragments of plastic. Hundreds of millions of nurdles, tiny plastic pellets used as raw material in the plastics industry, are spilt or lost every year and work their way into the oceans and other water systems.
The plastic fragments and nurdles act as chemical sponges, accumulating harmful industrial and agricultural pollutants. Ingested by fish, they find their way into our food chain, ultimately ending up on our plates.