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Carrier bags – paper or plastic?

August 14, 2008 at 2:56 pm

If asked to say which was worse for the environment, plastic carrier bags or paper carrier bags, most people would hardly hesitate to say plastic, plastic, plastic! Paper is a natural material and completely biodegradable after all. So why don’t supermarkets just switch (or switch back) to paper bags? Isn’t that the simple answer to the environmental damage plastic bags are causing? Well the truth is, it is certainly not that simple.

Plastic bags are undeniably a problem in many areas. Discarded carrier bags are directly responsible for the deaths of thousands of animals every year, from turtles to gulls, due to ingestion. They have been blamed for causing massive floods in India after they blocked up drains. Parts of the North Pacific Ocean are becoming a soup of photo-degraded plastic particles, which are then entering the food chain. You simply do not hear about paper bags causing these problems!

But let’s look at it from a different angle. The production of plastic bags is far better in terms of energy use than paper bags. It can take up to five times the energy to make a paper bag. The production of plastic uses valuable oil resources, but so does the production of paper bags. Paper bag production is also responsible for the destruction of millions of trees every year already (over 20 million just for paper carrier bags in the USA alone). The production of paper can create 50 times (yes, that’s 50 times!) the amount of water pollutants than the production of plastic, and up to 70% more air pollutants.

It doesn’t stop there. Paper bags are heavier, up to 6 times heavier, and more difficult to compress than plastic bags. That means more impact from transport pollution. It also means that paper bags would take up much more room in landfill sites than plastic bags currently do (less than 2%). And whilst it is true that plastic bags can take hundreds of years to break down, paper bags also have this problem due to the fact that biodegradation requires light, water and oxygen, elements which are often missing from modern landfill sites.

A much larger percentage of paper bags are recycled when compared to plastic bags; paper recycling in general is much more advanced than plastics recycling. However, recycling paper bags uses many times more energy than recycling plastic bags. Then there is the issue of reuse. It is thought that 80% of plastic carrier bags are reused at least once. This is probably because they are strong, waterproof and don’t fall apart after a couple of uses. Can the same be said for paper bags?

So is paper better than plastic? The answer, quite clearly, is no! Both paper and plastic carrier bags create their own problems for the environment. If plastic bag recycling was brought up to the levels of paper recycling, this already small environmental problem would all but disappear.

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