A Day in the Life of … the Paper Bag

A Day in the Life of … the Paper Bag

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One of the biggest and potentially most eco-friendly choices we can make is when the sales clerk asks us whether we want paper or plastic.

Even those who don’t really believe in global warming acknowledge the environmental damage created by plastic bags: million of trapped and dying marine birds, mammals like dolphins, amphibians like frogs and toads, and even reptiles like turtles.

What many don’t know is that the carbon footprint of paper bags isn’t that much better than plastic. In fact, some statistics show that paper bags have more of an impact than plastic bags.

While I don’t believe that (because I know that a statistic can always be found to prove anything), I do know that paper bags don’t get off scot-free. Paper bags, like almost every other product consumers buy, have an environmental footprint. For example:

  • Americans use about 10 billion paper bags a year. This consumes about 14 million trees that would otherwise be soaking up carbon dioxide, or CO2, the greenhouse gas most often identified as the culprit behind global warming, aka climate change.
  • Manufacturing these bags uses four times as much energy as plastic bags
  • It also generates 70 percent more airborne pollutants than plastic, and half again as much water pollution
  • At the other end of the life cycle, paper bags also use almost 100 percent more energy to recycle than plastic
  • Brown paper bags are recyclable, but few city-based programs collect them for this purpose. Instead, they are sent to landfills, whose unique composition (no water, no light, and no oxygen once they are capped) does not allow decomposition to occur. This includes not only paper but bio-based plastics and compostable or reusable plastics
  • Paper bags generate 7,621 tons of  CO2 (per 150 million bags) while plastic bags generate only 4,645 tons of CO2 equivalents (again, per 150 million bags)
  • Paper bags require more than one thousand gallons of water to produce a thousand units; 1,000 plastic bags take only 58 gallons.
  • Plastic HDPE (grocery) bags use almost three-quarters less energy to produce than do paper bags
  • And again, using paper bags generates almost five times as much solid waste as plastic bags, and allowing them to decompose (as opposed to recycling) produces twice as much CO2

These facts were taken from a lifecycle analysis of paper vs. plastic first requested by French firm the Carrefour Group in 2004, and revised in 2008 – using ISO (International Organization for Standardization) classifications 14040 through 14043 – to meet the needs of the City of San Francisco Board of Supervisors, who were looking for a paper vs. plastic metric to take to voters. The 2008 paper incorporates the values from studies which compared plastic, bioplastic (bagasse), and reusable plastic.

A lifecycle analysis incorporates detailed measurements of the various factors during the manufacturing of the product. These include the energy needed to harvest the raw materials, the energy needed to assemble them into a product, the energy used to make them available to consumers, and finally the energy needed to recycle or dispose of them.

One thing that has not been factored into this equation is the cost of cleaning up ocean gyres, or vortices like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It’s quite a convenient (and conspicuous) failure, but readers should take it into account when making their own evaluation.

According to study authors and revisionists, any law or laws designed to reduce environmental degradation and litter by banning plastic grocery bags “…will not deliver the intended results.”

Moreover, while some litter reduction might occur, reducing the use of plastic would be counterproductive, since paper and bio-bags consume at least as much energy during their full lifecycle.

As a result, legislation that attacks litter would be potentially much more effective than banning plastic bags. Building public awareness of litter – and the need to reduce, recycle and reuse plastic bags – would be the frosting on the cake, so to speak.

In spite of these findings, San Francisco ultimately ended up banning plastic bags at all retail stores and imposing a 10-cent charge for all other bags handed out by said store. This legislation, taking effect on Monday, October 15, 2012, follows in the footsteps of 49 other California cities and counties which are making an effort to suppress the huge amount of plastic waste generated each year.

Best advice? Buy some reusable cloth bags and keep them in your car wherever you live. Better to be part of the solution than part of the problem, and all the statistics in the world aren’t going to change the perception that bag litter is taking over the earth!


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