Is paper better than plastic for the environment?
With all the talk of plastic waste and the damage it is causing to our planet and the creatures on it, more and more businesses are looking to go plastic free, and are turning to paper alternatives instead.
Whilst there are lot of long term benefits to choosing paper products, there are (perhaps surprisingly) some pros to plastic too.
We thought it would be helpful to you, our customers, to understand the impact of both plastic and paper bags on the environment throughout each of the stages of their life cycle – raw materials, manufacturing process, during their usage and how they’re recycled or disposed of.
Each has positives and negatives – the more you know, the more informed you can be of which materials you choose to use and the consequences of that.
So, let’s start at the beginning…
For both paper and plastic, their environmental impact depends upon the efficiency of their processes and the measures manufacturers put in place to protect the environment.
The raw material for paper bags is wood; a renewable, ever-growing resource. All industry impacts the environment to some degree, with Global Warming Potential (GWP) and the amount of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere being a major environmental concern. As they grow, trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. When they are cut down and made into products and paper, these products continue to store the carbon throughout their lifetime. One kilo of paper is said to store 1.3kg of CO2 equivalents. Even when paper is recycled it continues to store the carbon, which is good news for the environment.
A study on GWP caused by the production of paper and plastic bags, carried out by Swedish Environmental Research Institute IVL, concluded that paper bags, whether new fibres or recycled, have a much lower impact on GWP than bags made from recycled or renewable plastic.
Plastic is manufactured from the waste products of oil refining. The plastic pellets produced from the oil refining and separation process are melted down to a resin which is then extruded to make tubes of plastic in various thicknesses. These are cut to size and sealed to make plastic bags. If manufacturing facilities are not run efficiently, the impact on the environment will be far greater.
After the manufacturing stage, both paper and plastic bags have to be transported to a future destination which in itself uses energy and creates emissions. However, at this point, it could be argued that plastic is better, because the bags are lighter in weight and more compact than paper bags and therefore take less resources to transport. It is said that for one truck of plastic bags, it takes around seven trucks to transport the same number of paper bags.
Using plastic bags v paper bags
Faced with the choice, will the consumer choose a paper bag because they feel this is a ‘greener’ option – or a plastic bag-for-life, for its reusable quality?
Paper bags are a good environmentally friendly choice, especially those produced using FSC certified paper, meaning that it comes from well-managed forests which are part of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). They promote environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial and economically viable management of the world’s forests.
While paper bags are not ideal on the reusability front – they can tear easily and they are not waterproof – consumers do still reuse their paper bags for future shopping trips etc, they just don’t have as long a life as plastic bags-for-life. If you choose printed paper bags made from Kraft paper, which has long and strong new fibres, they will be more reusable because of their greater strength.
Plastic bags, in particular bags-for-life and those made from low density polyethylene (LDPE) have a much longer reusable life. Long after purchase these bags can be seen carrying groceries, school books, toys, gym gear, gardening products and much more.
It’s clear that single-use plastic is extremely detrimental to the environment due to the sheer volume that get thrown away. But the reusability of plastic bags can end up resulting in less waste if made the most of – this has improved dramatically as retailers stop supplying these bags and the plastic tax is introduced.
Recycling and Degrading
Especially because of the media attention on waste plastics killing our marine life, we are drawn to thinking paper bags are far better choice when considering their after-life processes and problems.
The European paper recycling rate is over 70%, making it the word leader, with paper bags being recycled an average of 3.5 times. Recycling paper seriously reduces landfill and polluting emissions that are associated with this.
Paper bags that end up in nature – like the countryside and on our beaches – are not harmful to land and oceans as they tend to decompose between two and five months. Their effect on landfill, however, is not so good; paper bags create dense solid waste that fills up landfill sites.
We know that plastic is at best extremely slow to degrade, taking hundreds of years, and at worst it is killing our wildlife and marine life. While landfill isn’t ideal because plastic doesn’t degrade, modern landfills are designed to isolate waste from air and water to prevent air pollution and groundwater contamination, so nothing biodegrades. But because plastic bags are compact, they take up a fraction of the space of paper bags.
When you recycle your plastic bags, once they have exhausted their bag-for-life status, they go into a recycling process that separates the different polymers and melts them down into pellets. These are then used in plastic manufacturing processes to make more plastic products.
Plastic bags v paper bags: the conclusion
At the end of the day, whether it is paper bags or biodegradable/recyclable plastic bags you choose, it can be what happens next that has the biggest impact.
If you reuse bags as much as possible, give out or accept bags responsibly (as a business and an individual), and most importantly, when the life has gone out of your bag, dispose of it appropriately, you are doing your bit to protect the environment for future generations.
The issue at hand that is alarming so many is the permanence of plastic and the effect it’s having on our oceans and wildlife after it’s usage, and when looking at it from that perspective, paper is surely the better choice.
At The Printed Bag Shop, we’re doing everything we can to minimise our impact on the environment, and also provide paper products for those looking for an alternative to plastic.
If you’d like to talk about your options, contact us by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or call 0191 268 7555.