Plastics Bags vs. Paper

In the midst of the plastic recycling boom, people are taking drastic measures to reduce plastic waste and reduce the numbers of single use plastics. Cotton buds, straws and stirrers are the 3 known things that are going to be banned by April 2020, with plans to add more plastic items to this restricted list. Many supermarkets have also jumped on the bandwagon and taken steps to reduce their own plastic consumption. Boots, Morrison’s and (soon to be) Aldi are 3 leading retailers that have converted from the trusty plastic bag to the increasingly popular paper one. As many people are overjoyed by the change and are attempting to encourage more businesses to switch, we sit and question if swapping to paper is really the best solution to help the environment.

Plastics, of course have their flaws, sadly due to littering and lack of proper recycling, plastics are leaking into our oceans and causing increasing levels of pollution and deaths to marine life. However, it is a wild misconception that this is the only type of waste going into our oceans. Sadly paper and metals are also waste culprits, however often go unnoticed as they sink below the surface. Maybe plastics do make up a large proportion of the litter in our seas and switching to paper bags, may reduce this waste, however implementing other plastic alternatives and changing to paper bags can cause some very different environmental damages.

Air Pollution

One of the benefits about plastics is their light-weight and their compactability, sadly the same can not be said for paper. Paper weighs much more than plastic, which means that when in distribution will produce a higher level of CO2 emissions. This extra weight and its lesser compactability also means that a fewer number of paper bags fit in one transportation trip than for plastic, meaning more trips are needed, increasing the CO2 emissions even further. A single plastic bag weighs approx 8.12g compared to the same size paper bag which is estimated to weigh 55.2g when distributed in bulk, as they are – this difference makes a HUGE impact. The shocking reality is that the extraction, manufacturing and transportation of paper bags causes has a 305g carbon footprint, per bag, compared to your standard HDPE bag which only causes 12.8g, this is a 283.9% difference.

Despite what we are hearing in the media, the conventional plastic shopping bag has the lowest Global Warming Potential, as well as this, paper (and cotton bags) need to be used an unrealistic number of times to achieve the eqcuivalent GWP level as a plastic bag. And sadly despite being seen as reusable 5 times, paper bags are also often only used once then disposed of, which sadly defeats the object of being better for the environment.

Manufacturing Flaws

Despite being told that paper is much better for the environment, it is in fact more damaging to the planet than we might think. Paper bags require a lot more energy to produce than the ‘harmful’ plastic, it also takes a lot more energy to recycle as well, both of which are emitting more CO2 into the atmosphere. Compared to plastic, paper uses far more resources to create, including land, water and trees – all in all this would mean you could have to reuse your paper bag 4 times to be as environmentally efficient and friendly as the standard plastic.

Food Waste

Bags are not the only plastic that is getting bashed in the media and by the general public lately, plastics in general have gained a bad reputation due to the increased levels of litter in oceans and landfills. However, despite being seen as shameful waste, some plastics are in fact preventing other kinds of waste. Food waste is an ever-growing problem. with around 7 million tonnes of food thrown away by households in the UK annually.  This number will most definitely increase if we ban plastic packaging. A great example of the benefits of plastic food packaging is proven with a cucumber, where just 2g of plastic can increase the shelf life for 11 days, even more impressive, a steaks shelf life is extended by an impressive 26 days by a tiny amount of plastic. Another unknown reality is that the small about of plastic packaging being used to increase the shelf life of the product, is that it is actually decreasing the CO2 level by preventing the food wastage – which is notably greater.

Removing plastic packaging may decrease the lifespan of products, however, as shown on the BBC’s War on Plastics, unpacked food greatly increases the cost of the item. This will once again cause food waste as people will refrain from buying them.

In Summery 

There are many misconceptions regarding plastic waste, including plastic bags – however when you compare them to the alternatives these myths are soon busted and the realities of the substitutes are often unspoken, ignored or even simply unknown. Of course plastic bags have their flaws, but as explained above, they can also have advantageous compared to paper. Is paper really the best option? We will let you decide.