Replacement of Plastic Bags with Paper Bags and Its Worth

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For the last couple of years, cities all around the world have been starting on a more eco-friendly approach to grocery shopping, specifically, implementing plastic bag bans. In one of these cities in the Philippines, Pasig City, families adjusted, including mine. I was 10 when my mother and I first witnessed the change. We walked into our local grocery store, watching the people leave with food-filled, brown paper bags, just like we saw on the news. With a shopping list in hand, my mother begins to fill our cart with needs and I helped look for the things we needed to refill at home. When we got in line for the cashiers, we notice the posters, in every lane, that said “no more plastic bags”.

I leaned against the counter, peeked over, and watched in excitement as the cashier lady put one paper bag inside another to make it stronger. Our city was one of the first cities in the country to implement the plastic bag ban. Like the people we saw earlier, we left the place with a bunch of full paper bags in our arms. My mother smiles at me, telling me that this change is happening for a better future. But is that “better future” really going to happen? For years, a debate between plastic and paper went on. With obvious reasons, more people opted for paper, and disregarded the idea of plastic usage. And that’s because almost every person on Earth is aware of the harms plastic bags bring. But not everyone knows of the greater truth about the paper substitutes. Paper bags can be just as bad, if not, even worse, than plastic bags because of their poor durability and inconvenience, ill-suited properties that affect transportation, disposal, and recycling, and harmful environmental effects.

One of the reasons why plastic bags aren’t worth replacing with paper bags is because paper is poorly durable and inconvenient for users. Plastic bags are popular for their durability. They can be used multiple times and it would take awhile for them to wear out. Paper bags, on the other hand, can break within a few hours, sometimes even minutes, of using them. They can carry less weight than plastic bags and are very vulnerable to water (Stanley). This is a big thing for many users because a weak paper bag means that it has to be lined with another, or two, which reduces its eco-friendliness.

Another thing is that paper bags are inconvenient when it comes to grip. Paper bags may have more volume than plastic bags but it is a fact that they can only be carried two at a time, unlike plastic bags- they can be carried as many as hands can grip, without being concerned with damage (Stanley). Additionally, not all grocery stores give paper bags with handles. Customers, then, would have to carry the bags using their whole arms, which means that the most one person can carry are two (full) bags. One more thing that makes paper bags inconvenient is that they attract pests, like cockroaches. With plastic bags, it is safe to say that pests are not to be worried for. But with paper bags, roaches can easily hide between the bag foldings. The glue used to stick the bag up is also a potential food for cockroaches. These occurrences are common to supermarkets (Logomasini). And with this in mind, not only may cockroaches infest the users’ homes, they can also infest their cars, as many keep spare grocery bags in their cars for the next grocery-shopping trip. Users better be prepared for a house and a car infestation when they unknowingly bring one of those roach-infested paper bags home.

Another reason why plastic bags aren’t worth replacing with paper bags is because paper bags have ill-suited properties that affect transportation, disposal, and recycling. In comparison to plastic, paper bags are thicker and weigh more. According to the Canadian Plastics Industry Association, the weight for a standard kraft paper bag is 55 grams, while the typical plastic bag is 6-8 grams. This means that paper bags would need more vehicles for transportation- To transport two million paper bags, it would take seven trucks; Two million plastic bags, on the other hand, would only take one truck (CPIA). Not everyone may realize this but when this is looked at at a bigger picture, having more trucks to transport paper bags will require more fuel, causing a higher gas emission into the atmosphere.

Also, the thickness of paper bags would not contribute to their shipping costs. Regarding its disposal, not every torn-up paper bag is recycled, mostly, because of its big mass that would make recycling cost more. Only 20% of paper bags turn out to be recycled ones even though they are immensely recyclable. The rest are, instead, shipped to landfills (Lober). Paper bags are just as bad as plastic bags in landfills. They do not break any faster than plastics there. The reason being, landfills aren’t ideal conditions for the degradation of paper bags. They lack light, air, and oxygen, which makes, pretty much, nothing decompose; so paper and plastic bags end up spending the same amount of time in landfills (Lober). And the fact that they are much thicker than plastic bags do not help because they consume more of the landfill space than plastic bags. However if the paper bags were indeed recycled, it would do more harm than good to the environment.

Recycling paper bags is worse than producing new ones as oceans and the air are polluted. When recycling, paper uses chemicals such as hydrogen peroxide, sodium silicate, and sodium hydroxide. These chemicals are needed for paper to be re-pulped. Recycled paper results in more water pollution than fresh, newly-produced paper (Czinski). So even though you save a tree on land, the recycling of paper bags would not help the waters and the atmosphere. Any other way, paper bags have unsuitable characteristics that badly affect their overall life cycle.

The last reason why plastic bags aren’t worth replacing with paper bags is because like plastics, paper bags also have harmful environmental effects, and they can be far more unpleasant than the consequences that plastic bags bring. In comparison to plastic bags, paper bags have a higher carbon footprint. This is a result from the huge amount of energy used in the production and transportation of paper bags. As mentioned before, paper bags require more vehicles for transporting because of their bigger mass, meaning more energy is used.

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Likewise, paper bags consume much energy when produced. As a matter of fact, less energy is applied in the polyethylene used in plastic bag-making than the recycled fibers of paper bags (Stanley). When paper bags are produced, not only are chemicals used, they are also produced at high temperatures. According to a research by Kirsty Bell and Suzie Cave, most paper bags are produced through using high temperatures for heating wood chips in a chemical solution. Using these toxic chemicals leads to water pollution and air pollution, like acid rain. As an analogy, it can be said that the consumption of 1,000 paper bags amounts to 15 gallons of gasoline burned (Czinski). Finally and most obviously, paper bag production would require the cutting of trees. Not many will look more into this idea and often, the fact that trees are renewable resources will come to mind. But the greater truth is that more trees are being cut than replaced.

To make paper bags, 14 million trees are cut down in the United States in a year (Lober). Keep in mind that trees also contribute to the environment through carbon-fixing. If the rate of tree replacements cannot keep up with the rate of deforestation, then expect a bigger consequence- further destruction of the atmosphere. As bad as it gets, to clean up the carbon dioxide, 6 trees will take one full year (Czinski). Besides this, it is also important to take into account how much water is vital in producing paper bags. Water is not a renewable resource, so if more countries around the world will continue the plastic bag ban and turn toward the paper path, the possibility of Earth running out of water, one day, will come sooner than anticipated.

Many people will oppose this favor of plastic bags over paper bags for many different reasons. That is because they aren’t enlightened with more information that they need on this very big issue. But if there was a thing that is a major disadvantage of plastic bags, that would be how lightweight they are that they become litter everywhere. Sometimes, they also even photodegrade under light, breaking them down into tiny toxic particles, also known as microplastics. Microplastics attracting toxic substances such as dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) or hexachlorobenzene is a concern because they can end up in places they shouldn’t be in. An example would be how marine organisms could end up ingesting these substances and being harmed. This issue alarmed some people (Henry and Catarino).

In addition to this, many people believe that once marine animals, especially fishes, swallow these particles, it will become a part of the food chain and be ingested by humans. What not everyone knows is that this is just a speculation by most, a mere misunderstanding. Those tiny plastic fragments are not toxic, and in the cases they indeed are made of toxic substances, they cause little to no harm to its ingester. According to most studies, the toxic substances related to plastic can either be low-concentrated to be toxic or that the toxicants stick strongly to the plastics that they won’t be absorbed into the organisms’ bodies and cause complications (Henry and Catarino). Moreover, there is a good amount of probability that the microplastics are eventually released from the animals’ digestive tracts.

To support this claim, an example would be one study in which investigators found that marine birds, which ingested plastics, had lower levels of toxic substances in their tissues. It was suggested by the investigators that the plastics within the birds’ tissues were attracting the toxic substances already present before plastic consumption, and removing them. They concluded that the toxic substances bonded to the plastics will not bring toxicity complications toward the health of marine organisms (Henry and Catarino). So to sum it up, plastic fragments, or microplastics, are not concerns to the lives of marine organisms.

Regarding plastic litter, that one is up to humanity. It is our fault for plastics being everywhere. One action that will give a huge impact and a better outcome would be to manage plastics, not ban them. Plastic production should be slowed down and lessened. In addition to this, the “R-U-R” (reuse, upcycle, recycle) rule should be followed. First, plastic bags should be reused. They should be reused as much as possible, until they can no longer be reused. Then, if they can no longer perform their purpose as carriers, plastic bags should be upcycled. Crafty people can make D.I.Y. projects with plastic bags.

An example of this would be how people around America are crocheting plastic bags into sleeping mats for the homeless people. In 2016, a group of women called “The Bag Ladies”, from Union City, came up with this idea. Plastic bags are cut up into strips and tied together to form “plarn” (plastic yarn), then they would crochet them into sleeping mats. Each 3 by 6 foot mat would take more than 600 bags to make. In a year they were able to make 88 mats. Some of them were sent to the flood victims of Louisiana (Shah). This is a very encouraging example for crafters. But those who aren’t crafty enough can also contribute by sending a bunch of worn out (but still usable) plastic bags to organizations that can upcycle them into newer things. Finally, if the bags no longer have a purpose, they can be dropped off at recycling bins.

Recycling has to be the last option because it is the least eco-friendly. When plastic bags are recycled, they are melted down, which means bad gas emissions happen. What is needed for plastic bags is to be reused as much as it can be used so it would cause less environmental consequences, so recycling being last is a huge must. Overall, there are many ways in which plastic bags are better than paper bags. Paper bags should not replace plastic bags. What’s needed is not a plastic bag ban but a plastic-management program and education, regarding this topic, for the general public.

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