Battle of the Bags: Paper or Plastic?

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Battle of the Bags: Paper or Plastic?

Emily Dozier, Staff Writer

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In the age of reusable grocery bags, our minds can’t help but wonder back to when cashiers asked, “Paper or plastic?” Today, most people would likely opt for the “greener” paper bags in order to reduce their use of plastic. But which bag is actually better for the environment?

While neither resource is necessarily clean, plastic bags have a slight advantage based on manufacturing, reuse, recycling, waste volume, and generation. Plastic is made from ethane, a burn off during the natural gas refining process. Luckily, it’s an environmental solution to the pollutants released during natural gas extractions. Fewer resources are required during the manufacturing of plastic. To make one pound of plastic, 22 gallons of water are needed, compared to 40 gallons needed to make a pound of paper. Paper additionally uses more nonrenewable resources in production and emits tons of acidic gases. Five to seven times more greenhouse gases are released from paper waste compared to plastic waste. Thus, paper bags have a higher risk of global warming potential.

While paper has a higher recycling rate than plastic, it doesn’t really degrade much quicker. In fact, paper requires more energy to be recycled. But when thrown out, it gets burned, releasing carbon dioxide, or sits and rots, emitting methane, a gas that is 30 times more toxic. The waste produced from paper is heavier, simply due to the weight of the material. It makes up about 40 percent of waste, while plastic occupies a smaller 10 percent. Nevertheless, only 80 percent of trash finds its way to landfills; the remaining portion can be anywhere, from forests to rivers to oceans.

This is not to say plastic is exactly safe for the earth. It can be extremely dangerous to wildlife, evident from the plastic straw ban in an attempt to help the turtles. Plastic so often makes its way into the ecosystems of birds and marine animals, making paper a better choice of grocery bags for coastal communities. Not only can plastic bags choke an animal who attempts to eat it, assuming the floating clear object is a jellyfish, but the ingestion of debris may poison the creature. And like the unassuming animals, chemicals in plastic can find a way into humans as well. Phthalates, bisphenol A (BPA), polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are found in most adults. It’s usually harmless, as the amounts found are very minor. Nevertheless, an abundance of chemicals can affect reproduction in both humans and animals. These chemicals can be found through the contamination groundwater through leaks in a landfill or the waste in soil and freshwater.

Plastic may provide an environmental solution, but it still causes environmental problems. Because it uses emissions from gas, eight percent of world oil is put towards the production of plastic. Additionally, it photodegrades, meaning it uses light to break down in landfills, and can take between 500 and 1000 years to fully breakdown. The amount of plastic in landfills adds up quickly, as curbside recycling does not handle plastics as well as other materials. Still, a third of plastic is seen in disposable packaging, which usually ends up littered.

Despite the past consequences of mass deforestation and land pollution, paper and plastic have  potential to be more sustainable for long term use. Recycled and sustainably sourced paper provide the friendliest origin, as opposed to the bleached sheets usually found. Plastic has the potential to reduce the human footprint, if used wisely. “For example, one study found that packaging beverages in PET (a type of plastic) versus glass or metal reduces energy use by 52 percent and greenhouse gas emissions by 55 percent. And, solar water heaters containing plastics can provide up to two-thirds of a household’s annual hot water demand, reducing energy consumption,” said Richard Thompson, lead editor of a report published by Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society B. The truth is still that neither plastic not paper bags are the face of the future. Reusable cloth totes are the greenest and safest solution for all shopping needs. They can be used to bag fresh produce, store bits of leftovers, and carry more food longer distances. The reduced waste doesn’t hurt, either.

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