Unravelling the Packaging Dilemma: When is Plastic Better Than Cardboard? (Aka Plastic vs Paper #BeerClips)

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In this article, I’d like to address the ultimate question of plastic vs. cardboard packaging. Which is better? How can you decide, and what factors should you consider?

Most would argue that ditching plastic for cardboard is the responsible choice, but before you make the switch, hear me out. This example applies to any packaging, not just beer clips, but considering I have saved nearly 150k of them, I will focus on these.

Some breweries and consumers (and trolls on my Facebook page) argue that using plastic clips to carry beers is less sustainable than switching to cardboard packaging. I disagree. There are many factors to consider in a product’s lifecycle (including packaging), and in this case, REUSE will always triumph over SINGLE-USE. In fact, this holds true in EVERY CASE. Allow me to elaborate.

What is Life Cycle Analysis?

Life Cycle Assessment, also known as Life Cycle Analysis (LCA), is a process for evaluating the environmental impacts of a product or service over its entire life. It determines the best-performing product, service, or solution at a given point in time in terms of specific environmental impacts, such as carbon emissions (The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2023).

Emissions Associated with Production and Transport

When considering any product, we should ask the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) questions: How was this product made? Was renewable energy used? Were the conditions of workers fair? Is the material used renewable or at least recycled?

Let’s look at plastic beer clips made by PakTech (a company that currently owns the majority of the market) versus cardboard clips by BioPak (a market leader in other bio and cardboard packaging).

PakTech uses recycled plastic (rHDPE) and manufactures most clips in China. Clips are shipped or flown to Australia by a major supplier and delivered to WA. (This might, however, be changing soon, read on!)

BioPak has become much more transparent about its supply chain, and while they are B Corp certified, they “work with approximately 20 manufacturing partners, mainly located in Taiwan and China. In turn, each manufacturer works with raw material suppliers.”

Reusability and Recyclability

The good news is this media release from last year announcing PakTech teaming up with Visy to bring manufacturing to Australia (Vic), meaning they will hopefully be able to recycle clips that others might potentially collect, such as Endeavour Group, which owns many Dan Murphy’s and BWS stores across the state. This recent media release talks about their partnership in greater detail; however, it doesn’t mention how many stores will be included and what volumes have been or will be collected from the selected Endeavour stores.

Why is WA State Different (as usual)?

It’s important to know that Donut Waste collects clips for REUSE, creating employment for people with disabilities. WorkPower has been an important partner in helping sort and clean clips so they can be sold to our local breweries for reuse.

PakTech asserts that their plastic clips can be used over 50+ times, and from our own experience, we can attest to that. Our statistical data show that only 0.001% of clips recovered are broken and need to be recycled.

However, they are currently not recyclable through residential recycling bins in WA and have to go to a specialised recycler. In other words, I take them to Claw Environmental in Welshpool. Here, they are shredded and pelletised and sold to be used for making plastic products again.

But Isn’t Cardboard More Easily Recyclable?

Yes, it is, and in some cases, cardboard can present a better option as it holds value in the recycling market. But cardboard also has emissions associated with transport, and its production costs us loads of water and trees! (Trees that we desperately need to keep to help absorb the carbon we pump into our atmosphere.)

Here Comes the Twist!

But wait. BioPak beer clips (or ring holders, as they call them) are actually not made from cardboard! They are made from “a reclaimed by-product of the sugarcane industry.” Whatever that means.

In terms of recycling, this means they are not welcome in your yellow bin and need to be either composted in your FOGO bin (Food Organics, Garden Organics) or composting solution of your own.

For that to happen, a few things need to occur:

  1. The end consumer (in this case, a beer drinker) needs to be aware of how to dispose of them correctly.
  2. The end consumer has to have access to composting.

Neither of these occurs in, dare I say, 90%+ cases, so sugar cane beer clips end up in landfill. Where they, unlike plastic clips, create methane – the fast-warming gas we should avoid at all costs.

Usability on Top of Reusability

Many bottle shops complain that paper clips become unusable once taken out of the fridge. Some brewers I spoke to hate them even more as they fall apart when they’re putting them on their precious product in the first place.

Why Collecting Infrastructure Matters

In the end, waste conundrums almost always boil down to two questions: 

a) Is it collected? 
b) Can it be reused?

So, ask yourself: Where does your packaging end up? In the case of clips, if you switch to sugar cane, it ends up in a landfill or contaminating the recycling bins of Perth.

You might find it more beneficial to opt for collected and reused plastic clips. That’s if we can educate enough of the market to bring them back to one of our WA collection points. (Been working on it since 2021 – any help is always greatly appreciated!)

In Conclusion

In the grand scheme, it’s crucial to recognise that plastic packaging has its place. Soft plastic packaging can extend the life of food (picture cucumbers travelling across Australia), and hard plastic can reduce emissions from air transport (consider milk bottled in plastic instead of heavy glass).

Given that plastic clips are a proven reusable solution made from recycled plastic, and soon possibly even locally in Australia, solutions that, if collected and returned to circulation, support our local circular economy and create jobs for people with disabilities, I vote it’s a no-brainer to keep reusing plastic clips.

I’d love to hear everyone’s opinions and questions!

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