Debunking the Myths of the Paper vs. Plastic Debate, Part I

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Standing at the grocery store checkout, realizing you forgot your reusable shopping bags, or if you did remember them, you don’t have enough, you’re faced with the decision: paper or plastic? First, you’re momentarily overcome with pangs of guilt; second, the inner dialogue commences. You’re a deer in the headlights, frozen, afraid to make a move.

There’s a lot of confusion surrounding the Great Bag Debate, much of it perpetuated by misinformation, common assumptions, and a whole lot of greenwashing. For years, it was thought that the better choice for the environment was paper, but it turns out that paper and plastic bags are just about equal in pros and cons. They both use resources, cause pollution, and generate many tons of waste that more often than not, ends up in the landfill.

To further complicate the conundrum, there is more than just paper and plastic to consider these days; plastic alternatives, including corn-based PLA, and landfill biodegradable plastics are commonly being used in packaging. As eco-conscious consumers, which bag do we choose, and how can feel good about our choice?

The Resources and Energy Pitfall

Myth #1: Paper is made from a renewable resource, so it must have a lower impact.

The first part of this statement is true, but in fact, paper production deals a double blow when it comes to climate change and environmental impact. First, forests are cut down, removing trees that absorb greenhouse gases and convert it into oxygen (not to mention the other impacts on wildlife and ecosystems in general); in 1999, more than 14 million trees were cut down to produce the 10 billion paper bags consumed in the U.S. alone. Second, manufacturing paper from pulp takes a tremendous amount of energy, and because paper is relatively heavy, it takes a lot of fuel to transport the finished product.

How does this compare with the plastics? Of course, there are impacts associated with the extraction of petroleum (just look at the Gulf), but it turns out that the actual production of plastic bags releases about 92% fewer emissions into the atmosphere than paper bag production, and requires about Plastic bags also weigh significantly less than paper, requiring less fuel to get them from point A to point B.

What About Waste

Myth #2: Paper breaks down in the landfill faster than plastic, so it must be the better choice.

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It turns out that under standard landfill conditions, paper does not degrade any faster than plastic. Even newspaper can take years to break down; newspapers excavated from one New York landfill were mostly intact after 50 years, and another in Arizona was still readable after 35 years. Indeed, the largest percentage of solid waste in U.S. landfills comes from paper and paperboard products, about 31%.

On the other hand, the new generation of plastics somewhat complicate this debate. PLA, or corn-based, plastics commonly used in disposable cutlery, packaging, and plastic grocery bags is compostable, but only among the perfect conditions found in a commercial composting facility, NOT in the landfill where  most plastic ends up, or even in the backyard compost pile.

Biodegradable plastics, like ENSO’s products, however, do break down in the anaerobic landfill environment in a short amount of time (an average of five years), leaving behind only methane, carbon dioxide, and biomass. The use of an additive in standard plastic production also makes it a cost-effective solution. In terms of the plastic waste problem, the biodegradables currently hold the most promise.

Next week, in Part II, we’ll take a look at the aspects of pollution and recycling, and see how the contenders hold up.