Mythbusting the Eco-friendly Fantasy of Paper Bags:

Who is the Fairest of them All?

 

 

 

 

Fairytale Fact and Fiction Gives Food for Thought

 

They say “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”  This girl would definitely disagree…

In the fairytale Snow White, the heroine makes what appears on the surface to be a healthy and smart choice in eating a vitamin-loaded apple. Unfortunately, it turns out that despite its naturally beautiful appearance, the apple is poisonous and ultimately causes far more harm than good.

If plastic bags are a smoking vial of bubbling green liquid – clearly toxic and easy to avoid – paper bags are more like a poisoned apple. Most people would assume “natural looking” paper bags are recyclable, and therefore an easy environmentally-friendly choice. Although these paper bags don’t cause fairytale comas, the hidden poison of this alternative’s full life cycle is extremely damaging. When considering the environmental impact of a bag, one has to take into account the entire life cycle of the product – the “cradle to grave” impact. It is at this higher level of analysis that the argument for the use of paper bags begins to fall apart. 

During the production process for paper bags, 70% more energy and 17 times more water is used than in the same process for plastic or compostable bags of the same size.1 Paper bags also take over twice as much material as compostable bags take to produce and are responsible for 2-15 times the amount of greenhouse gas emissions.2 As mentioned in a previous article in this series, the transportation chain of paper bags from the place of manufacturing to the supplier to the end retailer requires 6 times the cost and produces 6 times the emissions compared to plastic bags due to the large size and weight of paper alternatives.

Up until the point that paper bags are delivered to the consumer, they’ve already caused a much more damaging effect to the environment than either compostable or even plastic bags. Unfortunately, it doesn’t get much better from there. The main appeal of paper bags for consumers is that they can be recycled. However, according to a mandate from the U.S. Department of Energy – Office of Scientific and Technical Information, only about 28% of paper and paperboard products are recovered for recycling, while 61% is either not available to be recycled or ends up in the landfill.3 The same report stated that the energy saved by recycling Kraft paper was 0. 

Moving on to the last stage of the life cycle of a bag, we arrive at the end-of-life impacts. As stated above, a large percentage of Kraft paper bags will not end up being recycled and will instead end up either in a landfill or in the natural environment. There is an important phenomenon known as eutrophication that becomes relevant here. Essentially, when certain products are not disposed of properly and become litter, they degrade somewhat and result in the emission of nitrates and phosphates into waterways. This causes algal blooms, where large amounts of algae grow in the water and hoard the oxygen in the area, causing other plants and animals that would usually absorb the oxygen to suffocate. Kraft paper bags have been found to contribute hugely to this phenomenon, about 7 times more than a single-use plastic bag4

Like the evil fairytale Queen, paper bag manufacturers perpetuate the fantasy that this naturally appealing commodity is healthy and safe when in fact, the opposite is true. Don’t be tricked into eating eco-consumerism’s “poisoned apple” – instead, dig below the surface for the full picture and the safest choice for the environment.

 

Sources:

1. Chafee, C. Yaros. “BR (2007).” Life cycle assessment for three types of grocery bags—recyclable plastic.

2. James, Karli, and Tim Grant. “LCA of degradable plastic bags.” Centre for design at RMIT University (2005). https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.522.7858&rep=rep1&type=pdf

3. Gaines, L L, and Stodolsky, F. Mandated recycling rates: Impacts on energy consumption and municipal waste volume. United States: N. p., 1994. Web. https://www.osti.gov/biblio/10134188 

4. ​​Chase, Marshall, and Nandini Hampole. “Building Long Term Solutions: Retail Shopping Bag Impacts and Options.” BSR.[online] (2010). https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.645.4879&rep=rep1&type=pdf

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