Every time environmentally conscious consumers find themselves in a supermarket or a grocery store, they encounter a rather difficult choice between plastic and paper bags. Most of them are aware of all the advantages and disadvantages of plastic bags, but they still remain an illusion that paper bags are more nature-friendly. Thus, a lot of people believe that the choice is brought down to the issue of personal convenience as opposed to the preservation of the environment.
However, it is not as simple a task to assess the impact of biodegradable and non-biodegradable materials as it may seem to non-professionals. Despite the fact that paper bags are made of wood, which is believed to be an ecologically clean, renewable, and organic resource, some other influential factors that concern the process of manufacturing must be taken into consideration before drawing a conclusion (Cherrier, 2006). The paper at hand is going to provide a comparative analysis of plastic and paper bags with an aim to find out their advantages and disadvantages for the environment.
Source of Production
Although it is commonly believed that paper bags are cleaner as they are produced from ecologically safe materials, it is still debatable which sources bring about more deplorable consequences. Plastic bags are commonly manufactured from the wastes of oil refining. Hence, in the assessment of their life cycle, all the processes that take place before the final product is completed should be taken into account. Those are initial oil extraction, separation of the needed substances during the process of oil refining, and actual production of the plastic suitable for bags manufacturing. The overall harm done to the environment depends upon the precautionary measures taken at each stage of the production and may amount to a very high level (Allwood et al., 2012).
In contrast, paper bags are produced exclusively from trees. However, it is important to bear in mind that extraction of timber and then processing it for paper can still have a number of detrimental effects, the most crucial of them being whether it came from sustainably managed plantations and forests or not. Moreover, the production of paper bags not only threatens wildlife but also requires high energy consumption (Kirwan, 2008).
The production of both plastic and paper bags requires a substantial amount of energy; however, the latter is much more resource- and energy-consuming. In order to produce one hundred million plastic bags, the manufacturer needs an amount of energy that equals approximately 8,500 barrels of crude oil (Allwood et al., 2012).
In comparison, the production of the same number of paper bags requires two times that much (app. 16,000 barrels of crude oil). At the same time, it is connected to cutting down trees and using nuclear energy and hydroelectric power. Thus, the total energy consumption is five times higher (Kirwan, 2008).
Water is always used in the process of manufacturing in large volumes, but natural materials usually require more. About 250 liters of water are needed in order to produce approximately 1,000 plastic bags. This is rather economical in comparison to paper bags, which consume a little less than 4,000 liters of water (16 times the amount used in the production of plastic bags) (Cherrier, 2006).
After being produced, both plastic and paper bags are transported to various malls, supermarkets, stores, and other places of distribution, which gives another aspect of comparison: logistics costs predetermined by the number of trucks required for transportation. Plastic bags are lighter in weight (paper bags weigh ten times more) and can be easily compressed without the risk of being torn. Therefore, the number of paper bags that require a minimum of eight trucks to be transported equals the number of plastic bags that fit into only one truck. As a result, fewer gas emissions are produced (Allwood et al., 2012).
As far as recycling is concerned, the process is much easier with plastic bags; however, paper bag recycling is much more widespread. In order to be used for the production of new plastic bags, old bags are simply melted. Despite the simplicity of the technology, its low popularity, and the lack of awareness results in the fact that plastic bags are recycled only rarely (Allwood et al., 2012).
On the contrary, paper bag recycling is much more energy consuming (taking approximately 90% more energy per kilo) and complex. Paper bags have to be re-pulped with chemicals to separate fibers that are to be cleaned and checked to make sure that there are no contaminants in them. After that, these fibers are pressed and rolled into paper for the second time (Kirwan, 2008).
Pollution, which is an inevitable consequence of any production, is significantly higher when it concerns paper bags (app. 70%). The manufacturing of paper causes more greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution. In addition, paper bags production results in approximately 80% more solid wastes (Kirwan, 2008).
Despite the common opinion that the use of natural materials is a more ecologically-friendly option in manufacturing, energy- and water-consumption rates coupled with wastes produced to prove that plastic is still a greener option in comparison to paper.
Allwood, J. M., Cullen, J. M., Carruth, M. A., Cooper, D. R., McBrien, M., Milford, R. L.,… & Patel, A. C. (2012). Sustainable materials: with both eyes open. Cambridge, England: UIT Cambridge.
Cherrier, H. (2006). Consumer identity and moral obligations in non‐plastic bag consumption: a dialectical perspective. International Journal of Consumer Studies, 30(5), 515-523.
Kirwan, M. J. (2008). Paper and paperboard packaging technology. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.