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The battle between paper bags and plastic bags has been ongoing for a long time.
Both have their benefits and drawbacks, but judging by the recent movements to ban and tax the use of plastic bags and move towards paper bags, it seems clear which option is currently winning the race.
However, there are many factors behind the scenes that you may not know.
The general assumption is that paper is more environmentally friendly than plastic, but is this true?
To get the complete picture, we must look at both options more closely, starting from their manufacturing process and ending at their eventual disposal.
The Beginning of a Bag’s Life Cycle
At the beginning of any item’s life cycle comes the manufacturing process.
For paper and plastic bags, this is where plastic takes the edge.
The manufacturing of paper takes a high amount of energy to produce in comparison to plastic.
In fact, paper bags take about four times more energy to produce.
Paper bags require cutting trees, an energy-intensive pulping process, and even the use of toxic chemicals harmful to the environment.
On the other hand, producing plastic bags carries the lowest environmental toll compared to other bag options.
And although the process involves the use of petroleum, it still results in fewer carbon emissions, wastes, and harmful byproducts.
Even in terms of transportation, plastic bags win over paper bags.
Paper bags are five to seven times heavier than plastic bags, which results in the need for more trucks to carry the same amount.
More trucks equate to more air pollution created when transporting paper bags.
So in terms of manufacturing and transportation, plastic bags take the victory over paper bags.
However, this is just one factor in the battle between the bags.
The Usage of Paper vs Plastic Bags
When it comes time to finally use bags, regardless of type, the more you reuse them, the better it is for the environment.
And since paper bags are easier to tear and are susceptible to water, plastic bags also have a slight advantage in this area.
Studies have shown that to negate their environmental impact, paper bags must be used at least three times compared to plastic bags.
However, paper bags can be reused in other ways, such as for arts and crafts, and are even available in various specialized types that counteract the fact that paper is generally less durable than plastic.
The Types of Paper Bags
Paper bags come in different forms, are almost all biodegradable and specialize in their specific tasks, which helps increase the bag’s usable lifetime, making it a plus for using paper instead of plastic bags.
Some popular types of paper bags include:
SOS bags. These paper bags are more resistant to liquids and commonly used for food takeaway as they can fit twice as much as a plastic bag of the same size.
Flat Bags. This type of paper bag is most common as it is multipurpose and can carry things ranging from fruits to books.
Shopping Bags. These bags go hand in hand with fashion and lifestyle brands. They are fancy, charming and sophisticated with the proper use of brand marketing.
Bakery Bags with glassine and wax paper lining helps preserve the taste and freshness of perishable goods like bread, cookies and coffee.
Scotchban Bags. Greaseproof bags that, as the name suggests, prevents greasy foods from leaking out onto your clothes or surrounding area.
And though all these different types of paper bags are excellent, where the paper bag truly outshines a plastic bag is at the end of its life cycle.
The disposal of paper bags is significantly better than plastic.
Paper bags are easier to recycle, are biodegradable, and even when littered, they cause a significantly less environmental impact as they will degrade much faster than plastic.
Plastic bags, on the other hand, causes significant environmental damage when disposed of improperly. And unfortunately, this occurs more often than not.
Plastic takes hundreds of years to degrade and, if disposed into the ocean, can cause significant harm to marine animals and their habitat.
Even when plastics eventually break up into smaller pieces, microplastics, the effects of these microplastics are currently unknown.
However, scientists believe that this proliferation of microplastics will indeed be harmful to the environment as it is found everywhere, ranging from marine animals to farmland soul and even within the air we breathe.
So, Which Option is Better?
Both plastic and paper bags have pros and cons. Plastics are better than paper during manufacturing and transportation but falter during disposal, while paper bags are better when used, reused, and recycled.
Though paper bags seem to have a slight edge over plastic in terms of usage and disposal, how the consumer handles either bag determines what’s best for the environment.
Whichever bag you choose to use, remember that the more you reuse, repurpose and recycle will ultimately result in a more environmentally friendly option.