Intuitively, you might feel that paper is more environmentally-friendly than plastic – after all it is made from trees. But it doesn’t grow on trees, so the trees have to be destroyed to make the paper. In fact it takes 24 trees to make just one ton of paper.
It also takes more than four times as much energy to manufacture a paper bag than to make a plastic bag. Whole forests are cut down to make paper – forests that could be helping the environment by absorbing greenhouse gases.
The majority of paper bags are made by heating wood chips under pressure at high temperatures in a chemical solution. The chemicals used in paper production are toxic and contribute to air pollution, including acid rain. They also pollute waterways, and the toxicity of the chemicals is long term and settles in sediments, where it can work its way into the food chain.
In fact paper bags produce 70% more air-pollutants and 50% more water-pollutants than plastic bags.
But it doesn’t end there. In 2005, the Scottish Government issued an environmental impact assessment containing comparisons between a lightweight plastic bag and a paper bag.
|Indicator of Environmental Impact
|Consumption of nonrenewal primary energy||1.0||1.1|
|Consumption of Water||1.0||4.0|
|Climate Change (emission of greenhouse gases)||1.0||3.3|
|Acid Raid (atmospheric acidification)||1.0||1.9|
|Air quality (ground level ozone formation)||1.0||1.3|
|Eutrophication of water (algal blooms, dead zones, fish kills)||1.0||14.0|
|Solid waste production||1.0||2.7|
|Risk of litter||1.0||0.2|
As you can see from the table above, paper has more adverse environmental impact in almost every category. (A score greater than 1.0 indicates that the paper bag makes more contribution to that environmental problem than a lightweight plastic bag).
Advocates for paper will tell you that paper bags are ‘green’ because they are often 100% recyclable, and so they are. In fact paper can be recycled up to 7 times before losing its integrity, but a paper bag would need to be used at least 3 times to offset the environmental impact of its production. Paper bags are not durable enough to be used 3 times, and they rarely survive a single use, as they tear easily. Also they are much heavier than plastic bags and are nowhere near as strong, so you would need more of them, and they completely lose their strength when wet.
A report has been commissioned from the Profundo Research organisation by the Rethink Plastic Alliance, Zero Waste Europe, the European Environmental Bureau, Fern, and the Environmental Paper Network https://eeb.org/paper-based-food-packaging-at-the-centre-of-europes-waste-crisis-new-report-reveals/# .
This Report confirms my view that plastic is still the best material for packaging https://www.biodeg.org/subjects-of-interest/life-cycle-assessments/ particularly if it is oxo-biodegradable and will not therefore lie or float around in the environment for decades. See https://www.biodeg.org/why-biodegradable/
The Report says “As a reaction to the environmental and socio-economic impacts associated with plastics – paper-based packaging is increasingly marketed as a sustainable alternative. Evidence shows however that paper-based substitutes present many new as well as familiar challenges, furthermore paper is nearly always combined with plastics and chemical coatings.”
“Paper-based packaging in the food and beverage sector presents multiple challenges throughout its lifecycle, including the impact of the pulp and packaging industries on climate change, biodiversity loss, water stress and deforestation; the challenge of managing growing levels of paper waste (often contaminated by food and grease) including in on-the-go settings; the difficulty in recycling paper-based composites which integrate plastics and other materials; and the extensive use of hazardous chemicals – many of which may migrate into food and end up in our bodies – by the paper packaging industry.”
“Around 90% of paper pulp is made from wood, and paper production is responsible for about 35% of all clear-felled trees – every year 3 billion trees are cut down globally for paper-based packaging.”
“The country providing the most paper and pulp to the EU is Brazil – providing more to Europe than the region’s biggest producers – Sweden and Finland. In the last two decades Brazil has tripled its pulp production, now covering an area of 7.2 million hectares (twice the surface of Belgium). Eucalyptus and pine plantations in Brazil are exacerbating water scarcity, forest fires and biodiversity loss.”
“Within Europe, Finnish forests have become a net emitter of carbon dioxide due to overlogging, and 76% of Finnish forest habitats are classified as threatened. The capacity of Swedish forests to capture CO2 has been reduced by 5 million tonnes as result of over exploitation. Lichen has decreased by 70% since 1950 threatening biodiversity and the livelihood of indigenous reindeer herders.”
“The pulp and paper industry is the world’s third largest consumer of water – the production of just one A4 sheet of paper requires around 10 litres of water. The industry is also the world’s fifth largest consumer of energy, and the International Energy Agency (IEA) states that the pulp and paper industry is not on track to reach its climate goals, being responsible for about 190 million tonnes of CO2 emissions in 2021.”
“Overall, little more than half of the paper and board produced use recovered fibre. The remainder are made of virgin fibres. In theory, paper and cardboard can be recycled around eight times but on average European paper fibres are only recycled 3.5 times. Recycling processes cannot cope with more than 3-10% non-pulpable (or non-paper) materials. For food and beverage packaging, the level and quality of recycling is inhibited by coatings and composites, which hamper recycling processes. One study showed that in 74% of tested samples, plastics were more recyclable than paper composite alternatives.”
“Chemicals are widely used throughout the production of paper-based packaging. Out of the 608 substances of concern found in food packaging, 256 (42%) are used in paper and board packaging materials. These are chemicals known to, among others, be persistent, cause cancer and disturb the human reproductive and hormonal system. Importantly, many toxic chemicals may migrate from food packaging and thus become a significant source of contamination in food and eventually the consumer’s body. Analysis of paper-based take-away packaging and tableware in Europe showed that 32 out of 42 tested items had been deliberately treated with PFAS chemicals – including many labelled as biodegradable or compostable.”
There are also unseen consequences of paper production. Because paper is a lot heavier than plastic it costs a lot more to transport, and causes more pollution from transportation. According to a briefing paper published by the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2011 it would take approximately seven trucks to transport the same number of paper bags as can be transported by a single truck full of plastic bags.
Plastic is made from ethylene, a by-product of oil production which used to be wasted. Therefore, so long as we still need oil for transport and energy production it makes sense to use the by-product to make plastic products.
However, conventional plastic can be a problem as it takes decades to degrade, and it disintegrates into microplastics. Fortunately this problem can be solved by using d2w biodegradable technology, so that if the bag or packaging escapes collection and ends up in the environment as litter on land or sea it will degrade and biodegrade (be consumed by bacteria and fungi) leaving nothing behind. Just like nature’s wastes.
Paper is fantastic, so let’s save some trees and use paper for the things that only paper can do. Plastic is not the eco-villain it is made out to be, and when made with d2w it is much kinder to the planet.
“Marketing single-use paper-based products as sustainable alternatives to plastics is misleading citizens and policy makers.”