February 08, 2008

Paper Vs. Plastic: Which One Is Better?

If you're tackling a family photo project, you'll need to think about what kind of storage supplies will work best for you.

Basically, you have two choices when choosing an album or photo storage box:

1. Paper.
2. Plastic.

The good news is you can find high quality archival storage products made out of either material.

But the bad news is there are plenty of junky materials out there.

A cheap photo storage box can cause more damage than it prevents.

Whether you choose paper or plastic, the safest supplies are the ones that have passed an independent test called the Photographic Activity Test. Click through to learn more about the test and why the term "archival" is meaningless when applied to consumer products.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both plastic and paper.

Plastic is good at protecting your treasures from fingerprints and spills.

Photo and documents that get handled all the time will be well served by putting them clear enclosures such as polypropelene and polyethelene. You (or third cousin who refuses to wear gloves) can see the images without touching them. Encapsulation is a good choice for fragile or torn paper that you can't afford to have repaired by a conservator.

But for storage, I prefer paper. Here's why:

Paper breathes.

Here in America we tend to put a lot of faith in the protective power of plastic. One visit to a grocery store here in the States will illustrate that fact very clearly. Everything from candy to beef to tomatoes is sold shrink-wrapped in plastic. I've traveled enough to know that this isn't the case in the rest of the world.

When it comes to archival storage, the fact that plastic doesn't breathe can actually cause more problems than it prevents.

Now, don't get me wrong -- plastic is great for keeping bad things out like moisture and fingerprints.


Photographs, film and tape are all made from materials that change over time. When these materials change, they can leach chemicals or give off gases that will loop back and inflict self damage if they are "sealed in their own juices" as my preservation instructor used to say.

Here's a striking visual example of what I'm talking about.

If this tape had been stored in plastic instead of cardboard, the acids and offgassing that burned brown stains into the box would have stayed inside and attacked the tape instead.

Photo of paper bags by tanakawho, some rights reserved.
Photo of tape case by Richard Hess.

That Richard Hess link will take you to his post that explains in more detail what's going on in the photo, and why he thinks tape has escaped the vinegar syndrome that has plagued film.


Anonymous said...

What about plastic that isn't sealed, like L-sleeves? Do you think they allow enough breathing?

Sally J. said...


L-sleeves allow more air circulation than a closed envelope or encapsulation, but not as much as paper. There's no magic amount of circulation.

Safe plastics are a reasonable choice -- so don't rule then out or panic that you've made a mistake. Just stay away from cheap office supply sleeves!

Here's a quick rule of thumb: If the item is going to be handled regularly, put it in (safe!) plastic. Because the oils and salts on fingertips are also a hazard.

Thanks for stopping by, Ivy. I hope I've clarified the tradeoff a little better...