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Plastic bags versus paper bags

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So which would you choose - plastic or paper?

It is becoming a question that has created huge debate; when it comes to packing your grocery shopping, would you choose a paper or plastic bag? It seems like it should be an easy choice, but there are a lot of positive and negative aspects associated with each type of bag. From durability and re-usability to life-cycle costs, there’s a lot more to paper and plastic bags than meets the eye. Let’s take a look at the way each bag affects the environment.

Plastic or paper – comparing facts and figures

Many people think that paper bags are much more environmentally-friendly than plastic, because it comes from wood, which is an honest, organic and renewable resource, whereas plastic comes from oil or gas, which is a non-renewable resource, manufactured via a chemical process. If we look at the manufacturing processes of both materials however, producing paper bags seems a lot less environmentally-friendly than producing plastic ones. One difficulty in comparing facts and figures is that there are so many sources to be found, based on different studies. The following gives a comparitive overview between plastic and paper bag production (1).

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As you can see, both manufacturing processes use water, but 220 litres are needed to produce 1000 plastic bags, while 3800 litres of water are needed to produce the same number of paper bags (1). And in terms of energy used and greenhouse gases being emitted during manufacturing, the plastic bag comes out best

To replace all the plastic bags being used in the European Union with paper ones in one year, you would need to cut down an additional 2.2 million trees. This is the same as chopping down 110 Km 2 of forest. If wood is being used from a sustainable forest (where 5% of the adult trees are felled every year and new planting takes place), then you would need an area slightly smaller than the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg (2) , and you would need to use 156 Billion additional liters of water each year (equivalent to 60,000 Olympic swimming pools). (3)

A study commissioned by the international retail chain Carrefour Group (4) in 2005 compared the environmental impact of plastic and paper bags. The conclusion was that overall, plastic bags were more environmentally friendly than paper bags and their advantages grew the more they were reused.

Recycling: paper versus plastic

Recycling of paper or plastic bags is not an easy process. In order for paper to be recycled collected paper must first be re-pulped using many chemicals to bleach and separate the pulp fibres. These fibres are then cleaned and screened to make sure that they are free of contaminants. Finally, the fibres are washed before being pressed and rolled into paper once again. In Europe, the current rate for recycling paper successfully is 70%, thanks to municipal paper collections; more than 60 million tonnes of used paper are collected in Europe each year (5).

To recycle plastic it must be re-melted and re-formed, resulting in a quality that isn’t as good the second time round. That’s why plastic is more often down-cycled into less functional forms. Across Europe, the recycling and recovery of plastics is growing steadily, driven by tougher waste legislation and set EU targets (6). In the Netherlands, the “Plastic Heroes” recycling campaign aims to efficiently recycle 42% of all plastic packaging by 2012. Even though it takes 91% less energy to recycle a kilo of plastic than a kilo of paper (7), it still has to be ensured that recycling streams are stimulated and improved, to reduce single-time use of bags and save precious resources. If societies across all European countries were more responsible about recycling plastic, an enormous percentage of plastic could efficiently be re-used in this way.

The negative image of plastic

Somewhere between 500 billion and a trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide each year (8). Of those, millions end up in the litter stream outside of landfills (estimates range from less than 1-3% of the bags (9)) and this is one of the reasons why plastic bags receive such bad press. Torn and ripped plastic bags caught in trees, stuck in sewers and found drifting on oceans are causing real problems; graphic images of dolphins, turtles and penguins being killed due to ingesting plastic has caused public outrage. For these reasons, some European Member states have taken different measures to tackle the increasing use of plastic bags and the pollution they cause. Ireland and Denmark have bag taxes while in Belgium and France retailers charge a fee that goes toward their collection and recycling. The Italian Government has taken the issue one step further by introducing a total ban on plastic bags.

We need to be more responsible

Taxing or banning plastic bags outright may reduce the amount of plastic bags used, but replacing them with, for example, paper bags will add to carbon emissions, along with more energy being used to cut, print, package and transport them. A good solution is to re-use plastic or paper bags multiple times for grocery carrying, and then recycle them as bin-liners. Investing in a high-quality re-usable carrier bag or a collapsible plastic crate offers a more sustainable solution. The most effective solution of course is for people to be responsible for their waste and take care of proper waste separation and recycle actions, so that bags flying around in our natural environment and oceans can be avoided. Plastic hardly degrades in nature; even paper can take weeks or even months to decompose (10).

It's only through proper waste management that we can stop the plastic 'soups' in our oceans from getting bigger. At the 5 th International Marine Debris Conference (11) held in March 2011 in Honolulu, representatives of plastics organisations from around the world signed up to an initiative aimed at preventing marine debris. They will work with the scientific community and researchers to evaluate the scope, origins, and impact of and solutions to marine litter, particularly in communities and countries that border our oceans and watersheds. In Europe, fishermen are now being paid to collect surface litter, especially plastic litter, using specially designed booms (12). This pilot project has been set up by the European Plastics Converters (an EU-level Trade Association) and supported financially by the European Fisheries Fund. This initiative will help to save marine life while cleaning up the oceans. At the end of the day however, the initiative to properly dispose of litter starts with YOU!

References

(1) Plastics' contribution to climate protection

(2) Sur la base de l'étude Denkstatt « The impact of plastics on life cycle energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions in Europe », PlasticsEurope, 2010

(3) Sur la base de « Life Cycle Assessment for three types of grocery bags », par Boustead, 2005

(4) The Scottish Government: publication

(5) Paper Online: Paper recovering and recycling

(6) The Plastics Portal: Recovery & recycling of PET

(7) Reuseit.com: Myth: Paper is Better Than Plastic

(8) Copperwiki.org: Plastic bags

(9) National Geographic: Are Plastic Grocery Bags Sacking the Environment?

(10) Ansers.com: How long does paper take to decompose?

(11) (Marine Debris Solutions: Global Plastics and Plastic Product Producers Take Action on Marine Litter)

(12) Waste free oceans