This is what you are thinking about when the person at the checkout asks you whether you would like bags. And you, as you have been living plastic-free for a while, look around, grab a paper one and smile with relief. Another plastic-free day for the tally.
But, have you ever asked yourself if choosing a paper bag is better for the planet? Do you you know whether plastic wins this battle?
THE IMPACT OF PLASTIC BAGS VERSUS PAPER ONES FRENTE LAS DE PAPEL
The scientific studies that have been carried out to compare plastic and paper come to the same conclusion: plastic bags are less harmful to the environment than those made of paper.
How can that be?- you ask yourself. Isn’t paper biodegradable and made from renewable materials? And what about the plastic? We are talking about a product derived from petroleum!
PLASTIC WINS WHEN IT COMES TO PRODUCTION, DISTRIBUTION AND LIFESPAN
Look, let us explain things further. Even though paper is biodegradable and is made from a renewable raw material, its production and distribution process is more harmful for the environment than that of plastic.
In order to give you an idea, during its production a paper bag consumes 3 times as much water than its plastic counterpart, emits twice the quantity of greenhouse gases and contributes 13 times as much towards water eutrophication (the excessive growth of plants and algae in our waterways resulting in oxygen depletion, so that we are all on the same page).
In addition, a paper bag weighs and takes up more space than a plastic one, thereby its carbon footprint in relation to transport is greater. As well as it piling up in landfills if it is not recycled at the end of its useful life.
Another point that tips the balance, is the product lifespan of bags made from one material or another. Given that plastic is more hard-wearing and durable than paper, it can withstand more reuse.
SO, IS PLASTIC BETTER THAN PAPER?
At this point, you must be thinking that we have gone a little crazy and that we are going to change our name from “Plastic-free” (Sinplastico) to “With plastic please”. Relax, there is nothing further from the truth.
To start with, yes it is true that the lifespan of a plastic bag is longer than that one made of paper, at least in theory. Because in practice, what normally happens is that these plastic bags are not used more than twice. From the shop to our homes and then from our personal rubbish bin to the rubbish container at the end of the street.
But even more importantly, what these studies are not taking into account is the potential risk of the toxic substances present in plastic. Toxic substances that never disappear and end up contaminating nature and of which we still do not know their full effect on ecosystems and our public health during the years ahead.
Therefore, in order to have a wider perspective of the problem, the key is to understand what happens next, after we have used each of these types of bags.
THE KEY IS: WHAT HAPPENS NEXT
Basically we find ourselves faced with 4 scenarios:
Paper bags can be recycled up to 6 times. No pasa lo mismo con el plástico. The same cannot be said for plastic bags, as explained by Patri and Fer in their blog Vivir Sin Plastico (Live Plastic-free). By the way, they have just released a must-have book to help you live without this material, Not all plastics can be recycled, nor is it possible to make a new plastic bottle from a used one. One always has to add new raw material (virgin plastic) to the mix.
2. The Rubbish Tip
If paper ends up in landfill it will end up decomposing and rotting. However, in this environment, deprived of oxygen, paper releases methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas 25 times more detrimentral than carbon dioxide, that is normally produced by this same process in nature. When it comes to plastic, it never breaks down, but instead breaks up into microplastics and contaminates the surrounding soil where it remains forever.
Both the incineration of paper, as well as that of plastic, emit CO2 and nitrous oxide (amongst other toxic substances).
Even though paper commonly doesn’t end up in the correct recycling container, being made up of cellulose, it is biodegradable under normal conditions and therefore disappears in a few years. Plastic bags on the other hand, as they do not break down, can end up in one (or all) of the following scenarios: lost in nature getting tangled around animals or plants, breaking up into smaller and smaller pieces until they turn into microplastics, or becoming some poor animals breakfast. In each and every one of these situations, the plastic is releasing the toxic chemicals it contains, and thereby contaminating our earth, our waterways and our food chains forever.
WHAT HAPPENS WITH REUSABLE ALTERNATIVES?
According to this study, for a reusable cotton bag to have the same environmental impact as a single-use plastic one, we would need to use it 131 times. This corresponds to a little over four months worth of daily shopping. It doesn’t seem like that much, right?
However, keep in mind that this calculation is based on bags made of cotton that has been grown with large quantities of pesticides, hence the required number to reach the same environmental impact of one bag compared with the other would be reduced if we were talking about organic cotton bags such as these ones. Also, when considering our bags it is important to note that they are produced locally, thereby avoiding potential transport and freight emissions.
Another point that supports the use of reusable organic cotton bags is their life cycle, since they are hard-wearing they are even more durable than the plastic option. And if they are ripped or damaged, they can be repaired or reused for other things such as cleaning cloths if they can’t be salvaged.
Finally, unlike other reusable bags, such as those made of polyester, organic cotton bags do NOT contain plastic in their make up and therefore they do not release synthetic microfibres out into the environment.
THE CONCLUSION IS – NEITHER PAPER NOR PLASTIC: REUSE!
When faced with the dilemma of deciding between paper or plastic, now you know. The most sustainable option is to reuse in order to increase the life of your existing bag. No matter what material it is made of.
On the other hand, if you find yourself short on bags and you need to buy some new ones, don’t think twice. Grab some orgaqnic cotton bags.
The most important thing is to NOT forget to always take them with you if you don’t want to find yourself sweating at the supermarket checkout again. Don’t say we didn’t warn you!