To some, this seems like a silly question and many will assume that paper has to be better for the environment, and this completely understandable with the consistent messaging in the media portraying plastic as evil. However, this topic is not cut and dry. There are many factors which need to be considered when discussing whether plastic or paper is better for the environment and these will be discussed in this blog post.
The case for shopping bags
Perhaps the best way to illustrate how this is a contentious topic is to apply it to something we all experience: shopping – or more specifically using shopping bags. When it comes to shopping bags, the most commonly used ones are made from either plastic or paper and both have their advantages and disadvantages. Next, we will look at their pros and cons for specific categories.
Paper bags are widely recycled and have a high recycling rate, which means less need to be produced in order to meet the demands of shoppers. Plastic bags, on the other hand, are not as widely recycled and so raw materials are needed more often to produce the quantity needed. So, in this case, paper is better for the environment.
Paper also naturally decomposes far quicker than plastic taking only around 2-6 weeks to decompose. Whereas, plastic is estimated to take around 1000 years. This factor is probably the main reason many people believe that plastic is worse for the environment. Because the plastic will not disappear quickly, it becomes litter and often ends up in the oceans causing harm and even death to sea life. You often hear about turtles swallowing and choking on plastic products after they mistook the product for food, unlike paper waste which does not seem to cause substantial harm. So, again paper wins here.
Now, at this point, you might be thinking why did we ever popularise plastic bags since paper is far in the lead right now in terms of its environmental impact. Well, the economic reason aside, its probably because of durability. Paper bags by their very nature are far weaker than their plastic counterparts and are rarely reused more than once before they are too damaged to carry out their purpose. Plastic bags, however, can be used multiple times without damage and with the bolstering of modern plastic shopping bags, even more so than before. According to the ethical waste disposal hierarchy, reuse is better than recycling and so plastic is victorious here.
When it comes to actually producing the bags, once again paper is not very innocent. This is because paper bags are made from trees and their demand can cause deforestation; exterminating natural habitats and depletion of the Earth’s oxygen production. Furthermore, according to the Northern Ireland Assembly, “it takes more than four times as much energy to manufacture a paper bag as it does to manufacture a plastic bag” which can certainly put a strain on our natural resources and consequently the environment. However, it must be said, that with global expectations for more sustainable manufacturing, many paper bags are now made using self-sustaining farm forests – which is a step in the right direction.
On the other hand, plastic is also guilty of using valuable and finite resources such as fossil fuels to be produced. The use of fossil fuels, of course, is widely documented as extremely harmful to the environment. However, with modern technology, many plastic bags are now produced using the waste/leftover waste products from oil refining. So, we aren’t exactly dedicating fossil fuel usage soley for plastic bags but we are still using precious fossil fuels when we could find alternatives. In other words, plsatic bag production is making the best of a bad situation and so is not as harmful as it seems.
A difficult decision here as to which bag type production is better for the environment, but we give a slight edge to plastic as it takes far less energy overall to be manufactured
What if people don’t reuse their plastic bags?
So it seems as though, from the points made above, for plastic to be better for the environment than paper, the product needs to be recyclable and reusable – giving it high durability. In fact, for shopping bags, a Danish study found that plastic bags need to be used over 37 times for them to be undoubtedly the better environmental choice. However, have you ever used a plastic bag 37 times? Or know anyone that has? Or are you part of the vast majority of people who even forget to use their plastic shopping bags more 2 or 3 times before they are lost or stored away. The latter is more likely.
Seemingly then, plastic bags actually seem to have the potential for being better for the environment than paper bags. But whilst we live in a society where we do not reuse or repurpose our plastic products enough times, paper is currently the better eco-friendly choice. What we can hope for is that with better education and government policies such as increasing plastic shopping bag prices, we will begin to reuse more – making plastic the better choice. But ultimately, if we get to the point where we no longer pursue activities such as oil refining as we seek more environmentally ethical fossil fuel alternatives, paper may become the optimal choice, as it is now, once again.