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Which is safer for the environment, paper or plastic bags?

While Canada’s efforts to cut down on the huge amounts of plastic trash generated everyday is laudable, it could lead to not-so-friendly environmental consequences if people turn to alternatives like paper bags, experts and studies suggest, reports CBC Canada.

“Single-use anything is bad news. Everything we use has unintended environmental consequences,” said Tony Walker, assistant professor at Dalhousie University’s School for Resource and Environmental Studies in Halifax. “We should be really cautious about just switching from one single-use lifestyle to another.”

Although using paper bags is considered a better Alternative to using plastics, paper bags are not environmentally-friendly at all. We have only to look at a 2011 research paper produced by the Northern Ireland Assembly. Titled “Comparison of Environmental Impact of Plastic, Paper and Cloth Bags,” the study found it “takes more than four times as much energy to manufacture a paper bag as it does to manufacture a plastic bag.

Canadian softwood lumber. — Photo: Fresh chunks of wood collected where they were growing  after 3...

Canadian softwood lumber. — Photo: Fresh chunks of wood collected where they were growing, after 3-4 days of being cut along the new forest road north of Chehalis Lake, BC, Canada.

“Paper does have an environmental footprint, and then even making millions of paper bags and transporting them costs more in terms of transportation costs and greenhouse gases than it would for the equivalent number of plastic bags,” Walker said.

A closer look at single-use paper bags and straws.
First, paper bags and straws are made from trees. Trees act as a carbon sink, storing carbon temporarily from the atmosphere, thereby reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. Paper products are made from fresh, raw materials (trees), which results in more deforestation, and habitat loss.

Plastics, on the other hand, are made from petroleum byproducts, meaning they are made from materials that have already been extracted and processed for other purposes.

Plastics retained by latest prototype shows the system is working.

Plastics retained by latest prototype shows the system is working.
The Ocean Cleanup

Second, the production of paper bags is very resource-intensive, especially with the amount of energy and water used. It is estimated that about 10 percent more energy is used to produce paper products versus plastics, while four times more water is required to make paper products than plastic ones.

And yes, recycled paper products can be made, but even then, it takes even more energy and water to go through the recycling process than virgin material,

Third, paper bags take up more space and are heavier than plastic bags. Think of it this way – it takes seven trucks to transport two million paper bags while only one truck is needed to transport the same number of plastic ones.

Plastic waste from Australia is shipped back from Malaysia via Port Klang  west of Kuala Lumpur

Plastic waste from Australia is shipped back from Malaysia via Port Klang, west of Kuala Lumpur

The increased weight and volume significantly increases the amount of waste going into landfills. In fact, the disposal of paper bags results in a threefold to sevenfold increase in greenhouse gas emissions in the landfill versus their plastic counterparts.

Besides the environmental impacts that go with paper products, the cost is surprising higher than plastics. Paper straws can cost roughly 5 to 12 cents per unit, while plastic straws cost a little under 2 cents each. And in today’s world of transitioning to a greener life, paper products are a lose-lose for both businesses and the environment.

New Jersey is the only state in the United States to ban single-use paper bags in supermarkets along with all single-use plastic bags in stores and restaurants. The state Legislature on Thursday voted to approve the ban which would begin 18 months after the bill goes into effect.

As the reader can see, there are pros and cons to using both plastic or paper bags. The world has not made the environment a priority during the coronavirus pandemic, but the use of plastic and paper products is something we will all have to eventually address.

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Written By

Karen Graham is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for environmental news. Karen's view of what is happening in our world is colored by her love of history and how the past influences events taking place today. Her belief in man's part in the care of the planet and our environment has led her to focus on the need for action in dealing with climate change. It was said by Geoffrey C. Ward, "Journalism is merely history's first draft." Everyone who writes about what is happening today is indeed, writing a small part of our history.

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