Bag battles: plastic vs. paper
by Brian Collett — Plastic bags have become a widely discouraged vice because of the enduring toxins they carry and pass on to humans, but is the persuasive case for banning or reducing their use so simple?
The New York City Council, in a city which collects 1,700 tons of discarded carry-out bags every week and spends $12.5m (£8.8m, €11.1m) a year to dispose of them, is one of many authorities taking action, imposing a five cent fee on every single-use bag provided by most retailers. The Massachusetts state senate is soon to ban many retailers from issuing plastic bags. Already, bag bans and fees are in place in 32 Massachusetts towns and cities, and in about 90 California localities, including Los Angeles and San Francisco. Other states – and other countries – are taking similar action.
But are paper bags preferable? An Australian government agency conducted comprehensive research as long ago as 2007. The findings? First, production of paper bags consumes more energy than the processes to make plastic bags. A damning comment from David Tyler, chemistry professor at Oregon University: “People look at [paper] and say it’s degradable. Therefore, it’s much better for the environment. But it’s not in terms of climate change impact.”
Second, the carbon footprint of paper bags is greater, says Tyler, because the paper is much thicker than the plastic. A simple illustration is that more trucks are needed to carry the product from factory to store, so paper loses on the basis of both production and transport.
The longer-lasting cotton bag is an alternative suggestion. WWF, the animal conservation and environmental protection charity, counters that cotton occupies only 2.4% of the world’s cropland, yet it requires 24% of the global market for insecticides and 11% of the pesticide market.
Furthermore, a pound of cotton needs 5,000 gallons of water, more than any vegetable and most meats, and is rarely recycled.
The surprising conclusion from the Australian study is that the best option appears to be a reusable bag made from recycled plastic, not cotton.
Even that may not be the complete solution. Climate Desk, an international group of writers specialising in climate change, believes the ideal would probably be to charge for plastic and paper single-use bags, but to issue reusable recycled plastic bags to those needing them, such as low-income communities and older people.
One unintended consequence of the 5p plastic bag charge introduced in England last October has been that a Lancashire packaging company has gone into administration. Nelson Packaging has effectively gone broke because of falling demand, and 40 employees have been shed.
Photo: Flickr / Creative Commons