Is bigger really better?
In spiders and hemorrhoids, we’d definitely say no. Is a nickel better than a dime? Still no. Or the first US-produced commercial computer in 1951 (which weighed 29,000 pounds) compared to the laptops of today? We’d have to say no there too.
Sometimes less is more. Less clutter. Less junk. Less damage to the environment. Less busyness. Less to hold you back or weigh you down in life. The same goes for replacements for single-use plastics. Good things truly can come in smaller sustainable packages.
Not all “environmentally-friendly” products live up to their claims, and we want to help dispel these myths. This is the first in a series of articles comparing paper products to compostable alternatives. We hope to share insights for you to decide whether or not paper lives up to its environmentally friendly reputation.
The first issue we want to tackle is how paper measures up to plastic and compostable alternatives within the delivery transportation chain.
Like computers from the 50’s, paper bags are an incredibly bulky product, weighing about 43g compared to plastic and compostable bags that weigh about 7g.1 This not only means that paper bags require more natural resources for their production, but also increases the cost and environmental impact of transporting them from where they are made to the end retailer where they will be sold. To put this into perspective, one 20 foot container can carry a mass of about 3.1 million compostable or plastic bags (compostable bags are of approximately equal size and mass to single-use plastic bags). Alternatively, that same container can only hold about 505,000 paper bags, meaning that for every truckload of compostable bags, it would take at least 6 trucks to carry the same number of paper bags.
To boil it down, transporting paper bags to stores requires 6 times the cost and produces 6 times the emissions that transporting the same number of compostable bags would. Bigger here definitely does not mean better.
To make this situation worse, single-use plastic bans being put into practice around the world have caused a massive switch towards paper products, with large companies like Sobeys and Safeway choosing to switch all 255 of their stores across Canada at once.2 Although the move away from single-use plastics is undeniably a positive change, the burden that this has placed on the transportation industry is quite extreme. Since trucking companies now have to provide 6 times the manpower and equipment to deliver the same number of bags to these large companies, massive delays have arisen on all sides, at a time when transportation is already being stretched past their limits.
If trends continue the way they are, with demand for paper and wood products increasing at this alarming rate, delays and shortages will continue to multiply. It is essential to find a way to mitigate this problem.
A study performed in 2015 examined the effects of plastic bag bans on grocery and retail stores, investigating how consumers changed their habits when presented with this change.3 In one of the stores in the study, customers were not charged for the paper bags that the store had switched to, but were only charged for other alternatives like reusable plastic bags. In the other store in the study, customers were charged approximately equally for all alternative bags, including paper (still only about 10 or 15 cents). The second store found that customers were far more likely to choose one of the non-paper alternatives when the cost for paper was about equal in price to the other options.
The researchers wrote, “this preliminary surveillance of the raw data suggests that plastic bag bans cause a large increase in paper bag demand; however, this increase in paper demand may be mitigated if customers are charged more for paper bags or offered a cheap and desirable alternative.” Compostable bags cost less throughout the entire production and transportation chain than paper bags, so as a result, retailers are able to charge less to give them to customers without incurring a loss themselves. This presents an easy solution to the unsustainable demand for paper products without returning to harmful plastics.
So once again, good things really do come in small(er) packages. Especially if that package is compostable.
And with that, part one is complete. We hope you’ll stick around and check out the rest of this series to get a full-picture view of the environmental impact of paper bags.
1. Greene, Joseph. “Life cycle assessment of reusable and single-use plastic bags in California.” California State University (2011). https://plasticsparadox.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Life-Cycle-Assessment-of-Reusable-and-Single-use-Plastic-Bags-in-California.pdf
3. Taylor, Rebecca, and Sofia B. Villas-Boas. Bans versus Fees: Disposable Carryout Bag Policies and Bag Usage. No. 330-2016-13807. 2015.
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