Plastic bags have come under fire lately, as they should. Resources are drained to create these bags and only a small percentage ends up being recycled, leaving the rest to either sit in landfills or litter streets, parks, and wildlife habitats. To put an end to the environmental and financial havoc plastic bags wreck on the world many cities have taken to banning plastic bags to encourage the use of reusable shopping bags. Many such bans include a section concerning paper bags. A typical ban consists of a straight out prohibition of plastic bags, but allows paper bags to be used for a charge, usually about 10 cents per bag. The logic behind the charge is that it will discourage consumers from exclusively using paper bags as an alternative to plastic bags. By allowing paper bags to still be used, even if for a fee, people can be lead to believe paper bags are not as bad as plastic bags.
Environmental Impacts of Paper Bags
The unfortunate reality is that paper bags are not much better for the environment than plastic. It takes roughly 14 million trees to make enough paper bags to meet the demand in the U.S. Paper bags have a 2-fold impact on the environment. First, trees are cut down to make the paper. Living trees absorb greenhouse gases, so cutting trees down for something as frivolous as a paper bag increases the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Second, manufacturing paper bags requires some toxic chemicals that in turn cause air and water pollution. What is really mind blowing is that when you run the numbers paper bags actually take more of an environmental toll than plastic bags. When compared to plastic bags the manufacturing process for paper bags requires four times as much energy, creates 50 times more water pollutants, and 70% more air pollutants. To top it off, it requires 98% more energy to recycle paper bags than it does to recycle plastic bags. The saving grace of paper bags is that the recycling rate is higher, largely due to the fact that most curbside recycling efforts accept paper. Nearly a ton of recycled paper creates about a ton of new paper, whereas 2-3 tons of virgin materials are needed to make virgin paper. The drawback to recycled paper is that it is not as strong, so paper bags constructed from recycled materials will not hold up as well as ones made from virgin paper, and paper can only be recycled about five or seven times before the fibers are too short and it just cannot be used again. Paper bags are also biodegradable, making them great compost. Vegetable-based inks completely break down whereas other types of ink may prevent the bag from being entirely biodegradable.
The only leverage paper bags have over plastic is that they are more likely to be recycled and if they end up as litter they can breakdown over time and do not pose as serious of a health risk to animals if consumed. If more people were aware of just how un-environmentally friendly paper bags are they would be banned along with plastic bags instead of being slapped with a usage fee. The only true eco-friendly solution is reusable shopping bags. Disposable bags whether paper or plastic cause too much harm to the environment. Reusable grocery bags are made from recycled or renewable materials and can deliver several years of service. Best case scenario you may get two or three uses out of a disposable bag. Manufacturing reusable bags from recycled plastics creates a long-term use and function for materials that may otherwise sit in a landfill.
Truly Eco-Friendly Reusable Bags
There are amazing reusable bags available today made from renewable materials like bamboo. A well-made bamboo bag can hang in there for several years and the environmental impacts are almost non-existent. Bamboo grows very quickly and absorbs a large amount of greenhouse gases as it grows, making it the poster child for environmentally friendly materials. It is very durable, but nothing lasts forever so when the day comes that your reusable bamboo shopping bag needs to be replaced you can compost or recycle it, and start over with a new reusable bag.
Paper bags are not perceived as being as bad on the environment that they really are, which is unfortunate. Levying a usage charge against paper bags is a start towards getting more people off paper and onto reusable bags, but banning paper along with plastic may be a better solution. What are your thoughts?
For more facts on paper bags check out http://www.ehow.com/about_5079972_paper-bags.html and http://www.epa.gov/osw/conserve/materials/paper/faqs.htm#use.