Paper Bags vs. Plastic Bags: Environmental Choice

Introduction: The Use of Paper Bags and Plastic Bags

Producing waste is a part and parcel of human life, which cannot be altered in the foreseeable future. However, with the advance of technology, the waste, which is produced by people, is becoming increasingly dangerous not only for them, but also for the environment in general, affecting every single living being. The specified issue becomes all the more complicated once a more detailed introspective on the existing options is provided: by using natural resources, people exhaust them, yet by using the existing substitutions, people pollute the environment with the products that are likely to affect nature greatly in the process of decomposition.

The specified dilemma is especially applicable to the production and use of paper bags and plastic bags. While designing the containers that will help reduce the negative impact seems the most rational choice, the reuse of plastic and paper containers without their further disposal should be viewed as an option for reducing the harmful effect of the production and disposal process thereof.

Analysis: Considering Available Pieces of Evidence

Studies show that both plastic and paper bags harm the environment in an almost equally brutal way, even though the ways, in which the negative effects occur, are strikingly different from the most part (Bell and Cave 1). However, in order to carry out the assessment of the two options in question, one must consider several key aspects of the use of bags, which define the effects of the process on the environment. Particularly, the areas such as production, waste utilization, recycling, use of energy and resources, effects on wildlife and the process of biodegrading deserve to be roughed upon.

The Production Process and Pollution

Unfortunately, the streak of factors that affect the environment negatively and are related to plastic or paper bags starts at the very beginning of the bags production process. Particularly, the use and disposal of natural resources deserves to be mentioned as the key factor. The use of Kraft pulping as the key to producing paper bags defines high rates of pollutants emitted in water and air in the course of paper bags production:

The majority of paper bags are made by heating wood chips under pressure at high temperatures in a chemical solution. The use of these toxic chemicals contributes to both air pollution, such as acid rain, and water pollution. These chemicals can pollute waterways; the toxicity of the chemicals is long-term and settles into the sediments, working its way through the food chain. (Bell and Cave 2)

The production of sludge also affects the environment in a rather drastic manner; when released, sludge trickles into the soil and triggers the following groundwater pollution, as well as the distortion of the ecosystem, threatening the existence of flora and fauna. Plastic bags, in their turn, do not have the specified problem. More importantly, some of the materials for plastic containers, such as PVC, do not have any harmful effects on the environment in the course of their production whatsoever.

Waste Utilization and Biodegrading

As far as the utilization issue is concerned, one must admit that paper bags can easily prove their superiority. In contrast to plastic, paper decomposes much faster and, incorporating mostly natural elements, does not harm nature in the slightest. The process of plastic decomposition, in its turn, is very lengthy and has a range of adverse effects. A closer look at the process of plastic bags decomposition will show that the stages, at which the process of plastic biodegrading occurs, are very lengthy and turn out to be extremely harmful for the environment.

Particularly, the process of decomposition affects the habitat, in which specific endemics live; as a result, the rates of biodiversity within the area, where plastic bags are left as litter, drop significantly. Although the PVC plastic, which is traditionally used for the creation of bags and similar containers, is traditionally viewed as the least harmful of the possible modifications, it still proves to be rather hazardous due to the considerably complicated process of utilization and the necessity to store the waste in landfills, which, in their turn, may leak and trigger mass pollution of groundwater and the soil in the vicinity.

A closer study of the subject matter will show that some types of plastic need at least 400 years to decompose: “It can take between 400 and 1000 years for plastic bags to decompose. A number of UK retailers have recently introduced degradable carrier bags. These bags are made from plastic, which degrades under certain conditions or after a predetermined length of time” (Bell and Cave 2).

Although paper is traditionally believed to be one of the most environmentally friendly products, it also causes certain problems after transported to a landfill. Particularly, the time that it takes paper to decompose is often underrated; though believed to be rather short, it usually takes around 2-3 months for cardboard or milk cartons to turn into disposable waste (LeBlanc par. 12). Therefore, although the time that it takes for paper bags and the bags made of paper related products (e.g., cardboard) has been proven to be greater than assumed previously, the time that it takes plastic bags to decompose is still impressively greater.

Recycling

Both plastic and paper bags are traditionally viewed as perfectly recyclable. The very process of recycling the specified objects, however, is hindered significantly by the lack of convenience in the waste disposal. For instance, the process of recycling plastic containers and bags often requires that the specified objects should be placed in a separate trash box, which may cause confusion and become a major nuisance. For instance, open dumping is traditionally preferred by the residents of South Eastern Europe as the means of disposing of plastic containers, as the specified approach allows for more comfort (Cogte 364).

Thus, claiming that the process of correct recycling can be facilitated and promoted among the target denizens of the population would be wrong; instead, either a campaign on increasing awareness regarding the subject matter, or a more efficient manner of waste disposal should be introduced into the lives of the specified population. Moreover, the study shows that people in other parts of the world may also face similar problems and, thus, dispose of plastic waste in an inappropriate manner, causing a rapid increase in pollution rates.

The recycling of paper also has its problems. As it has been stressed above, the production and further use of pulp needed for making paper is fraught with major negative effects on the environment; consequently, the process of paper recycling can only be viewed as reducing the negative effects only partially. More importantly, the paper bags that have been introduced to another substance, even if the substance in question is water, are traditionally considered non-biodegradable (Koushal et al. 3).

Table 1. Types of Plastic (Lee and Ellenbecker 464).

Code Name Use Recycling Breakdown time Hazards
PET(E) Polyethylene Terephthalate Bottles, bags Easy 5-10 ys. Plastic leaching
HDPE High density Polyethylene Detergent bottles Easy to medium Under 100 ys. Industrial slipping hazard
PVC Polyvinyl Chloride Medical plastics Medium n.a. Threat to animals
LDPE Low Low-density Polyethylene Bottles, bags easy 500–1,000 ys. Threat to animals
PP Polypropylene Easy to medium 1,000–2,000 ys. Hazard to people, animals and habitats
PS Polystyrene Easy to medium 50 ys. Threat to people and wildlife
Other types Depending on the type Depending on the type Depending on the type Depending on the type

As the table above shows, the PET(E) effects turn out to be the least harmful for the environment, the time for the decomposition process taking approximately 7.5 years on average. However, other types of plastic display the tendencies that can be characterized as environmentally unfriendly, their average decomposition time taking hundreds to thousands of years. Herein the need to reconsider the idea of using plastic as one of the key materials for creating bags, bottles and other containers lies.

Energy

There is no secret that the production process requires active use of the existing energy resources. Seeing that most of the energy resources used at present are technically exhaustible, it is crucial to define the approach towards bags and containers production that requires minimum energy. The creation of plastic bags, in its turn, consumes an impressive amount of energy (Gogte 2); however, much to the credit of the recent studies, new ways of producing PVC bags with a minimum energy waste have been designed:

“You can get only 50 to 55 percent fuel from the distillation of petroleum crude oil,” Sharma said. “But since this plastic is made from petroleum in the first place, we can recover almost 80 percent fuel from it through distillation.” (Researchers Find Energy Efficient Way to Convert Plastic Bags Into Diesel Fuel par. 5).

Nevertheless, the amount of energy used in the process of plastic bags production is truly ample. Compared to the production of plastic bags, paper bags cannot be viewed as a much more reasonable choice in terms of energy resources use, though: “Plastic grocery bags consume 71% less energy during production than paper bags” (The Plastic Bag – VS – Paper Bag Facts 1). Therefore, from the perspective of resources use, using a plastic bag seems more adequate than considering the use of a paper bag.

Use

Although the processes of plastic and paper bags production and decomposition alone provide rather solid reasons for reconsidering their use as the means of storing and transporting various products, the use of the specified types of bags shows clearly that both plastic and paper have a drastic effect on people’s health and, therefore, should be abandoned. One must admit, though, that plastic proves to be one of the most harmful options in terms of their usage because of the sanitation issues, as opposed to paper bags: “Plastic bag bans will result in public health issues due to bacteria harbored in reusable bags” (Plastic Bag Bans: Analysis of Economic and Environmental Impacts 24).

Indeed, according to the latest studies, active use of plastic bags as containers for food and drinks storage, which is the most common use of the containers in question, results in a rapid development of health issues due to the bacteria that plastic bottles typically contain. Studies show that, though the fear of plastic bottles harboring countless numbers of bacteria is exaggerated, plastic containers may serve as the breeding ground for the growth of the bacteria such as “arsenic, heterotrophic-plate-count bacteria, E. coli” (Bottled Water par. 6) to name just a few.

More importantly, the use of plastic bottles as the basic container for water or any other type of beverage or food requires that the plastic bottle should not be exposed to heat, as it may lead to the development of other elements that can be considered as potentially threatening to human health:

Studies have shown that chemicals called phthalates, which are known to disrupt testosterone and other hormones, can leach into bottled water over time. One study found that water that had been stored for 10 weeks in plastic and in glass bottles contained phthalates, suggesting that the chemicals could be coming from the plastic cap or liner. (Bottled Water par. 3)

Biodegrading

As it has been stressed above, paper bags have a comparatively lower biodegrading score than some of the plastic bottles. Indeed, a closer look at the subject matter will reveal that plastic bags, in fact, display rather high rates of biodegradability than paper bags. Whereas the latter decompose for a comparatively long time, thus, triggering major changes to the environment and altering the habitat significantly, plastic bottles display a rather high rate of biodegradability.

Despite the fact that the average rates of biodegradability of HDPE, which is one of the most commonly used types of plastic, make around 100 years, the recent modifications to the specified type of plastic have reduced the number of years that the decomposition takes to only a few (Karli and Grant 3). However, the specified study also shows that most of the plastic polymers mentioned as the alternative to the PVC are either non-degradable or partially degradable (Karli and Grant 4).

Consequently, the usage of plastic bags as an alternative to paper bags does not seem to be a reasonable solution, either. Although the harmful effects, which plastic bags have on the environment in the process of their decomposition, are proven to be lesser than those of paper bags degradation, the fact that most of plastic elements decompose at a consistently lower speed makes them rather harmful (Jacobsen 3).

The long-term process of plastic decomposition has a range of effects on not only the habitat, in which various endemics live, but also the species themselves. For instance, certain animals tent to be injured when being trapped in a plastic container that was disposed of in an improper manner. “One million sea birds and 100,000 marine mammals are killed annually from plastic in our oceans” (22 Facts about Plastic Pollution (And 10 Things We Can Do About It) par. 21). As the information mentioned above shows, the specified issue affects marine animals for the most part; however, if the process of improper waste disposal is not stopped and the production of plastic bottles and similar plastic containers is enhanced, other types of animals will be affected as well (Dunn par. 4).

When addressing the issue of recycling, one must also bear in mind that different types of plastic show different rates of biodegradability. As it has been displayed above, several types of plastic are used for creating bags; moreover, the bags in question are classified based on the type of objects that are stored in them. Particularly, bags for food, bags for medical tools, bags for beverages, etc. deserve to be mentioned among the key types (Green and DeMeo 2).

Additionally, the bags in question can be classified based on their biodegradability; which is even more peculiar, bags showing different biodegradability qualities can be used for the same purpose. As Chaffee and Yaros note, grocery bags are traditionally classified according to the biodegradability taxonomy (e.g., recyclable, compostable, and biodegradable (Chaffee and Yaros 1)). The authors also state that the traditional plastic bags, i.e., the ones that are made from polyethylene, should be preferred to the alternatives, as they contribute to the changes in the environment to a lesser degree.

Means of reducing the Impact

A closer look at the specifics of the usage of plastic and paper bags will show that the specified types of containers are viewed as a major threat to the environment primarily due to the fact that they have a very little shelf life. Although the actual properties of the specified materials allow for using bags several times, most people tend to throw the bags out immediately after opening a package. As a result, the amount of bags that are disposed after a regular use increases. According to a recent study,

The environmental impacts of each type are significantly affected by the number of times a carrier is used. When each bag was compared with no primary reuse, the conventional HDPE bag had the lowest environmental impacts of in eight of the nine impact categories, because it was the lightest bag considered. The HDPE prodegradant bag had a larger impact than the HDPE bag in all categories considered. (Edwards and Fry 56).

Edwards and Fry, therefore, hint at the possibility of using bags several times and, therefore, making the percentage of plastic and paper waste drop significantly. Indeed, the reconsideration of the use of plastic and paper bags can be viewed as one of the temporary solutions to the current issue. Despite the fact that reusing bags several times cannot be considered the ultimate way out of the problem, it still works as a means of reducing the negative effects of plastic and paper bags on the environment while the identification of alternative avenues for either the design of bags or the material for them takes place (Paper or Plastic? par. 5).

An Alternative Viewpoint

Naturally, a range of scholars claim that one of the specified types of packaging has a more negative impact on the environment than the other. Much to the credit of these scholars, one must admit that the use of plastic bags seems more hazardous in the short-term perspective, as the specified type of packaging poses an immediate threat to wildlife by creating certain “traps,” in which a range of specimens of wildlife get into.

As a result, numerous wildlife animals and birds die because of the improper disposal of plastic bags. However, in the long-term perspective, both types of bags are admittedly dangerous, paper bags posing a threat to partially renewable resources, e.g., trees, whereas the use of plastic presupposes dealing with its disposal and the following effect on habitat. Therefore, the suggestion that either of the types of bags may be viewed as a less hazardous alternative does not hold any water.

Conclusion

Since the use of both plastic bags and paper bags has equally negative effects on the environment, it is desirable that the tools for the production of alternative containers should be created; thus, the dilemma of the plastic bags vs. the paper ones would disappear altogether. However, at present, it is suggested that the use of paper bags should be encouraged as opposed to the plastic bags production, as the latter have a much more drastic effect on nature in general and wildlife in particular. Being much harder to utilize in a proper manner and posing a major problem to the process of an adequate waste management, plastic bags are clearly a threat to the environment; therefore, they should become obsolete.

One must note, though, that the use of plastic bags has been proven to have somewhat less severe effects on the environment than the use of paper bags. The specified discovery seems quite surprising, especially in the light of the fact that paper has been considered one of the materials that have the least harmful effects on the environment. The changes in the production process, as well as a closer analysis of paper decomposition, however, have shown that the specified assumptions are wrong and that paper bags, in fact, also have a major negative impact on the state of the environment.

Moreover, the issue regarding bacteria found in plastic bottles and other plastic containers also seems to have been blown out of its logical proportions, and the actual hazard may be lesser than it used to be interpreted. Therefore, technically, the use of plastic bags is less harmful at present than the use of paper bags, as the production and decomposition of the latter clearly have much more severe effects on the environment than the plastic bottles do.

The effects of plastic bottles production, however, should not be whitewashed, either. As it has been stressed above, studies have shown that the specified type of containers pose a major threat to not only consumers, but also wildlife, as a range of animals get trapped in the specified type of containers and, therefore, die. Although the issue in question might seem an accident and, therefore, considered an occasional incidence, a further analysis provided above has shown that the instances in question are far too frequent not to be considered paradigm.

Nevertheless, in the light of the fact that both options mean that a certain amount of harm will be inevitably brought to the environment, it is strongly recommended that people should use both paper bags and plastic bags multiple times instead of throwing them away. As long as the specified objects remain isolated from the natural environment, they will be relatively harmless. Therefore, it can be suggested that the production of washable plastic or paper bags with long shelf life should be considered a viable solution to the problem. Whereas the solution specified above can work as a short-term method of addressing the problem, a long-term strategy will need to incorporate new tools for managing waste.

Works Cited

22 Facts about Plastic Pollution (And 10 Things We Can Do About It). n. d. Web.

Bell, Kirsty and Suzie Cave. “Comparison of Environmental Impact of Plastic, Paper and Cloth Bags.Research and Library Service Briefing Note. 36.11 (2011). Northern Ireland Assembly. Web.

Bottled Water. n. d. Web.

Chaffee, Chet and Bernard Yaros. Life Cycle Assessment for Three Types of Grocery Bags – Recyclable Plastic; Compostable, Biodegradable Plastic; and Recycled, Recyclable Paper. n.d. Web.

Cogte, Mangal. “Are Plastic Grocery Bags Sacking the Environment?International Journal for Quality research. 3.4 (2009): 363-375. Economics Department K J Somaiya College of Arts. Web.

Dunn, Collin. Paper Bags or Plastic Bags? Everything You Need to Know. 2008. Web.

Edwards, Chris and Jonna Fry. Life Cycle Assessment of Supermarket Carrier Bags: A Review of the Bags Available in 2006. 2011. Web.

Green, Kenneth and Elizabeth DeMeo. The Crusade against Plastic Bags. 2013. Web.

Jacobsen, Sharon. Plastic Bag Pollution. n.d. Web.

Karli, James and Tim Grant. “LCA of Degradable Plastic Bags.Europeanplasticfilm.eu n.d. Web.

Koushal, Vipin, Raman Sharma, Meenakshi Sharma, Ratika Sharma and Vivek Sharma. “Plastics: Issues Challenges and Remediation.” International Journal of Waste Resources 4.1 (2014): 1–6. Print.

LeBlanc, Rick n. d. How Long Does It Take Garbage to Decompose? Web.

Paper or Plastic? n. d. Web.

Plastic Bag Bans: Analysis of Economic and Environmental Impacts. 2013. Web.

Researchers Find Energy Efficient Way to Convert Plastic Bags Into Diesel Fuel. 2014. Web.

The Plastic Bag – VS – Paper Bag Facts n. d. Web.