There have been numerous events or disasters wherein plastic was the main “culprit”. The most notable would be when Typhoon Ondoy hit the Philippines last September 26, 2009. Many properties, lives, and businesses were left in ruins and worse, lost. After the heavy flooding subsided, a large amount of plastic garbage was found clogging the sewers, floating on the rivers, and are literally everywhere. The problem became obvious to the masses that the reason for the excessive flooding is because of the extreme use of plastics. The government immediately turned its attention to the possibility of finding a substitute for plastics as means of secondary packaging in the market place.
Now, many municipalities are complying with the government’s imposition of the plastic ban and are now using paper bags for packing grocery supplies, purchased goods and whatnot. This is called House Bill 4840, to be known as the Plastic Bag Regulation Act of 2011.
But does using paper as a mean for secondary packaging really solves the problem? Is using paper a wise economic decision with respect to the producers that are required to provide it for bagging the products their consumers purchased?
We will try to analyze which is better, for both consumer and producer, for the environment, and for the sake of economics.
Polyethylene bags can house many items. You can also use plastic bags to put clothes, food, light equipments and others and you can take it anywhere carrying it. You can also put wet goods in it without it breaking. But with paper bags, you could only put so much so as not to break it. You can bring multiple plastic bags at the same time because it has holes to put your hands into. Unlike paper bags, you can only hold one or two and each bag can hold less items than one plastic bag can. Furthermore, supermarkets nowadays use another paper bag as a secondary layer to support the weight of the items inside. This would incur additional expenses to the side of the market owners and consequently, additional profit to the producers of paper bags. Paper also requires 5 times trucking capacity compared to plastic due to the bulkiness of paper bags.
There is also the issue of space with respect to landfills. Paper takes more space in landfills than plastics.
Producing paper is more costly than producing plastic.
Plastic is made up of oil. The oils used for production is only a byproduct of oil refining. Waste products from oil refining were utilized to produce another product. Economically speaking, it is a wise utilization of spoilage from production. Furthermore, the entire plastic making process only involves the use of electricity. Therefore, producing plastic is cheap.
Paper is made up of wood, pulpwood to be exact. Trees are cut down, transported by large trucks and fed into machines that both use fossil fuel. The next step would be cooking it with tremendous heat and pressure, and then digested by using limestone and sulfurous acid for eight hours. The steam and moisture is then vented out to the atmosphere and the wood becomes pulp. This process only makes the pulp and not the paper per se. The pulp is then washed and bleached, both of these stages needs thousands of gallons of clean water. Coloring is then added to more water, and is then combined in a ratio of 1 part pulp to 400 parts water to finally make paper. The pulp-water mixture is dumped into a web of bronze wires. The water showers through, leaving the pulp, and then rolled into finished paper.
With the process described above, we can already see that producing paper is no simple process and requires a lot of resources.
- Millions of trees are cut down, which requires the use of machineries that also has maintenance costs
- Deliveries to the mill with the use of big trucks use fossil fuels
- Machineries are used to cut the trees into manageable portions
- Chemical agents are added to the mixture just to make the pulp
- Thousands of gallons of clean water are used
- Coloring agents are used
With all the resources used above, it is obvious that producing paper is way more costly than producing plastic. The expenses on machineries, chemicals, water, and electricity should all be taken into account as to how much paper would cost.
- It takes almost four times as much energy to produce paper than plastic or polyethylene bag
- Producing plastic uses twenty times as much clean water than plastic
- Millions of trees have to be cut down just to produce paper and to be used for grocery items, which is usually thrown away and not recycled or reused.
Majority of people view plastic as non-environment friendly material. The masses are becoming environment-conscious and anything biodegradable is good for the Earth. These include the use of paper as means of secondary packaging. People think that if they reduce plastic use and switch to paper, they are somehow saving the environment. It is amazing how disasters can change a person’s perception towards pressing matters. But what the consumer does not know is that paper is as bad as plastic bags to the environment. And paper may be even worse.
Yes, you read it right, paper is as bad as plastics, or even worse.
Here are some comparisons:
- Production of paper requires the cutting of millions of trees. These millions of trees, if not cut, can convert Carbon Dioxide and prevent flooding. Plastics, if not disposed properly, can kill marine life, cause flooding, and overcrowded landfills
- Paper bags cause 70% more air and 50 times more water pollutants than plastic bags
- The final product, which is paper, requires the use of big tractors, use of machineries, and harmful chemicals that emit greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Plastics on the other hand, require crude oil and natural gas. Plastic bags only uses electricity
- Paper bags require 4 times as much energy to make compared to that of a plastic bag
- Paper bags use thousands of gallons of clean water
Both paper and plastic can be recycled so it can be of further use after its primary form has fulfilled its purpose. But further analysis reveals that recycling might not be the best idea for paper and plastic also has recycling disadvantage.
- Recycling paper requires the usage of water and chemicals again which defeats the purpose of recycling and makes recycled papers more expensive than virgin paper.
- It would take 91% less energy to recycle a pound of plastic than it would take to recycle a pound of paper. This means we are better off recycling plastics than paper energy-wise.
- Plastic is easy to recycle and does not cost so much; re-melting and recasting to the desired form is the only process involved. Two thirds of the energy used in producing virgin plastic is only used in manufacturing new plastic from recycled ones. The only drawback is, the recycled plastic is weaker due to weaker bonds between molecules. Thus, producing lower-quality product.
- Biodegradable plastics are a misnomer. Some of these plastics do not really degrade or decompose. They are recycled plastic mixed with cornstarch. The cornstarch biodegrades and breaks the plastic into little pieces.
Even though plastic wins by a landslide against paper, believe it or not, neither is the best option. The making and recycling of paper use a lot of energy, fossil fuel, chemicals, and most important of all, millions of trees each year. Making paper bags incur a wide range of costs; these costs are not only of monetary and energy value but environmental as well. While with plastic, monetary costs are considerably low. Since plastics are just the byproduct of oil refining, its production reduces wastage and generates profits from the supposedly to-be-disposed-of substance. But being cheap and expendable also have its drawbacks. Plastics in landfills are an age old problem; they decompose in an extremely very low rate. This situation creates space problems for landfills; tons of plastic wastes are dumped everyday and they are not going anywhere. Furthermore, improper disposal of plastic threatens marine life and man as well. Plastic that ends up in the ocean kills 1.5 million marine animals each year.
Also, plastics that clog major waterways produce massive flooding that could destroy anything in its path. In a country like ours where we experience many typhoons in a year, flooding is not new to us and is always in the news when a storm is present. Improper disposal of plastics and garbage multiply the level of flood and the damage as well.
The best option is to use reusable bags made out of natural fiber or canvas bags. In some municipalities, the local government encourages consumers to bring their own bag on scheduled days.
One reusable bag can be used multiple times and could last for 2 to 3 years. Reusable bags are also 14 times better than plastic and 39 times better than paper bags provided that it is used 500 times within its life cycle. The global impact of using reusable bags will be significant; resources will be allocated to satisfy other needs and wants and at the same time the environment’s burden will be lessen.