Paper Bags or Plastic Bags, what is worse for our environment?
Paper bags, with their biodegradable materials and recyclable disposal, are often considered to be the environmentally-friendly choice when compared to plastic. In fact, this is a common misconception; when doing some research, overall paper bags are more harmful to the environment than disposable plastic ones.
With the recent change to discourage consumers to use the 15 cents reusable plastic bags in our supermarkets, and replace them with 20 ct paper bags, it has been very easy to look back on plastic bags as the most harmful option in terms of environmental impact. Paper bags, with their biodegradable materials and recyclable disposal, are often considered to be the environmentally-friendly choice when compared with their plastic counterparts.
It is a common misconception; that paper is better than plastics, overall paper bags are more harmful to the environment than disposable plastic ones.
ARE PAPER BAGS REALLY BETTER THAN PLASTIC BAGS?
Let's look at the process of production of each and the impact that this has on our environment.
Carbon Positive Australia writes that the production of paper bags requires significantly more resources than plastic bags. Paper bags require roughly 4 times more water and produce approx 3 times more greenhouse gases. Additionally, plastic bags are created from polyethylene, which originates as a by-product of refining natural gases. This material would otherwise be burned off and discarded with no positive use, creating hereby it's own problem. Paper bags, which require large quantities of paper, the source of which originates from forest clearing.
Paper is also a very resource-heavy to produce: Manufacturing takes about 4 times as much energy as it takes to produce a plastic bag, plus the chemicals and fertilizers used in producing paper bags create additional harm to the environment. Confused? Yes so we're we...
Use and Sustainability
Sustainability is only created when a product can be used over and over before it needs to be disposed of. Paper bags tend to not last as long, as they are not waterproof and can tear easily under moderate weight. Paper bags that are designed to stand up under more weight sadly require a much larger usage of paper resources. Your standard plastic bag outperform paper bags in durability, as they can be stored easily without compromising the bag, hold a wider variety of goods and do not tear as easily under pressure.
Because paper bags are biodegradable, it is easy to assume that they are much easier to recycle than plastic bags, but this is not the case. Paper bags weigh roughly 8 times more than plastic bags, meaning they are significantly harder to transport for recycling due to increased volume. For example, transporting 2 million of paper bags to a recycling facility will require 7 times as many trucks as 2 million plastic bags! Think of the emission impact! Additionally, standard plastic bags with polyurethane content do not suffer from ‘down cycling’, which means they can be reproduced from the same materials indefinitely. Paper has a limited lifespan because paper fibers become shorter and weaker each time the recycling process takes place, there is a limit to how many times paper can be recycled.
Proper disposal of bags contributes greatly to our opinions of them. Most people have seen plastic bags as an issue because when littered and disposed of irresponsibly, plastic bags harm wildlife. However, with proper disposal, they represent a safely reusable resource. Sadly we have seen with the Redcycle example it does require an supported infrastructure to create a circular loop of reuse, versus creating waste.
Irresponsible disposal of paper bags is actually a devastating contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. Because paper bags are made from biodegradable materials, people often assume that they are harmless when placed with landfill garbage. However, this is another misconception – biodegradable materials do not properly break down in landfill. Biodegradable materials need an environment rich in oxygen to break down properly, which they do not have in landfill. Without this, they break down into methane which is one of the most harmful greenhouse gases in our atmosphere.
AND WHAT ABOUT COTTON BAGS ?
Cotton bags have to be reused 131 times before they reduce their impact on climate change to the same extent as plastic bags. To have a comparable environmental footprint (which includes climate change as well as other environmental effects) to plastic bags, a cotton bag potentially has to be used thousands of times. Materials other than cotton, however, perform much better in sustainability metrics. Nonwoven polypropylene (PP) can be reused approx 11 times before they break, or recycled poly vinyl chloride (PVC) which can be for numerous years before it breaks down. Both made from a more durable kind of plastic, these bags can be reused to break even with the impact of conventional plastic.
Reference: Carbon Positive Australia, "Carbon Myth Paperbags vs plastic bags" 2018 by Alice Greenwood. National Geographic Society "Sustainable Shopping, what bag is best", July 2022. News.com.au April 2023 by Claudia Poposki, "Woolworths is removing more plastic bags from states", ,