Paper or Plastic

Simple Actions In The Realm Of Ecology Make A Big Difference.

By Frank Niccoli

The simple question: “paper or plastic?”  Do you know which one to ask for?  I hope that this short essay will help answer that question for you.

I will be comparing two common grocery sacks normally found at the check stand, and I will be assessing each bag using two measures.  The first will be the amount of total energy used by the individual bag.  This includes the energy to make the bag (process energy) and the energy embodied within the physical materials of the bag.   The second measure is the amount of pollutants produced by either paper or plastic.

In determining the energy used to make the bag, I will consider transportation, electricity, fuel extraction, and processing.  To help simplify the energy units used, I will use the designator for energy of kilojoules (kJ).

Let’s Have A Look At Paper.

In the manufacture of paper, high amounts of coal, petroleum, and wood are used.  A single paper bag uses 350 kJ of coal, 500 kJ of petroleum, and 550 kJ of wood to be produced.  The total amount of expenditure of energy for a single paper bag is 1680 kJ of energy.

How Does Plastic Compare To Paper?

Plastic uses natural gas, coal, and petroleum.  Two plastic bags use 240 kJ of petroleum, 160 kJ of coal, and 990 kJ of petroleum.  The total amount is 1,470 kJ, or 13% less energy to produce 2 plastic bags to 1 paper bag.  So far it looks like plastic has the lead.

Pollutants come in three basic flavors: solid, airborne, and atmospheric waste.  Solid refers to the bag arriving at the landfill and to how much material is thrown away at the manufacturing facility.  Airborne and atmospheric waste is concerned with materials that are discharged after receiving emission controls or wastewater treatment.

Because plastic bags have less overall mass than paper, they produce less solid waste at the landfill.  One paper bag contains 50 grams of waste, and two plastic bags produce 14 grams of waste.  Plastic also produces less atmospheric pollutants.  Two plastic bags produce 1.1 kg of waste, while one paper bag produces 2.6 kg of waste.

When we look at waterborne pollution, we consider it to be pollutants that harm the ecosystem.  Plastic produces 0.1 g and paper produces 1.5 g of waterborne pollutants.

So far it seems that plastic is the winner and should be the one you need to ask for at the grocery store.  Plastic, in comparison to paper grocery bags, consume 40% less energy than paper, produce 70% fewer atmospheric emissions, releases up to 94% few waterborne wastes, and generates 80% less solid waste.

From what I have written to this point, your choice is simple and clear.  Next time you are at the market and you are confronted with the words “paper or plastic” you will shout with facts backing your decision, “Plastic, please.”  Well, I wish the decision was that clear cut and easy, but there are some other issues that we need to look at.

The factors that come into play in this equation are the bag manufacturers, garbologists, the environmentalists, and human nature. 

Let’s start with the environmentalist’s take on this issue.  Plastic bags end up on roadsides, in our waterways, and in landfills.  Wildlife swallow them because of the food scents that are in the bags, get their feet and wings caught in them; sea turtles mistake them for jellyfish and eat them causing blockage in their stomachs; whales eat them; they clog sewer lines causing stagnant ponds of waste water; and if the bags are not properly recycled they do not degrade.

Paper has its list of problems as far as the environmentalists are concerned.  Paper has a higher volume, take up more space at a landfill, and the amount of trees that are removed for the manufacture of paper bags is astronomical.   If 1 ton of paper grocery bags are recycled, 13 to 17 trees are saved.  Because of landfill policies of layering trash and then compacting it, the paper does not degrade because it is deprived of oxygen and water.  Garbologists estimate that it will take a paper bag 40 to 50 years to decompose.

The tally so far is that the bag manufacturers favor the plastic bag and have the data to back their decision, and the environmentalists do not favor either plastic or paperThe garbologists favor plastic because it takes up significantly less room in the landfill.

The human nature factor is the only other significant factor in determining the right answer.

Four to five trillion plastic bags are produced every year, and about 3% are not recycled.  They become litter.  They are in every corner of the planet, including the remote areas of Antarctica.  Although littering and trash laws have reduced the amount dumping, 3% of four trillion is a big number.

The Partial Answer To This Complicated Problem Of Paper Or Plastic Is To Reuse And Recycle Them.

Recycling centers will take plastic bags as well as most supermarkets.  They are then shipped to centers that reduce them into pellets for the remanufacture of plastic bags.  If 1 ton of plastic bags is recycled the energy equivalent of 11 barrels of oil are saved.

Re-use means that we need to use them.  This has a huge impact.  If, in the San Francisco Bay area, every person used one less grocery bag per year, it would reduce waste by 5 million pounds and save a quarter of a million dollars in disposal costs.  Take them back to the grocery store to bag your groceries a second, third, or fourth time.  Use them until they wear out and then recycled them.

You can use them as wastebasket liners, store your craft supplies in them, or fill them with a bag of food to take to the homeless shelter. Stash them in your suitcase for storing wet bathing suits, as laundry bags, and even as an emergency suit case for those extras that always accumulate when traveling. Wrap your shoes in them when packing your suitcase.  This will keep the dirt from your shoes away from your clothes.  Store a paintbrush full of oil-base paint in a plastic bag for use the next day.  Wrap the brush in a plastic bag and place it in the refrigerator overnight.  Make a kite out of them.  Store Christmas decorations in them.  Use them for a lunch pail.  Use them as a pooper-scooper.  Place outdated or used clothing in them for donation to your favorite charity.

It is a tossup whether paper or plastic grocery bags are the best for the environment.  So what is the answer to “Paper or Plastic?”  They both have their drawbacks.  Neither of them is beneficial to the environment.  They both cost us in terms of dollars and environmental damage to make and to dispose.

My recommendation is that you bring your own cloth bags to the supermarket.  Then you will not have to stand there pondering “paper or plastic, paper or plastic.”  THE ANSWER IS CLOTH.