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Paper vs. Plastic: The Shopping Bag Debate!
Today is World Paper Bag Day!!!
7/11/2020 11:53:01 PM
Dr. Pragya Khanna

It was somewhere in early 1980’s when many supermarkets in developed nations switched from using paper bags to plastic since the plastic (polyethylene) bags were thought to be durable and were less expensive. Since then the polythene bag has evolved tremendously and being trendy and stylish became so popular that it completely replaced the traditional material of packing because of its ease of utilization, durability, light weight, waterproof nature, permanence and low cost.
The following article is an updated version of the one I wrote about two years ago on the use of polythene being an unfriendly option and its serious environmental implications. It prompted hundreds of comments and lively feedback.
Keep in mind; this article is written with an intention and broad look at the debate of paper vs. plastic grocery bags. In the recent past when the excessive use of polythene, being non-bio-degradable, started showing its ugly signs that people, Govt., NGOs all started speaking on cutting down its usage and shifting over to a bio-degradable alternative, paper, cloth, jute etc. And everyone knows that in most of the cases it is a paper bag that is considered a convenient choice.
However, it is rather surprising that even paper is considered a bad choice coming to environmental concerns. While convenient addictions both paper and polythene gobble up natural resources and cause significant pollution.
Before you accept a brown bag when out for shopping at an expensive store, consider these environmental disadvantages of paper:
Paper manufacturing causes pollution: According to studies, paper production emits air pollution, particularly 70 percent more pollution than the production of plastic bags. Also, manufacturing paper emits 80 percent more greenhouse gases. The paper bag making process also results in 50 times more water pollutants than making plastic bags. The majority of Kraft paper is made by heating wood chips under pressure at high temperatures in a chemical solution. As evidenced by the unique stink commonly associated with paper mills, the use of these toxic chemicals contributes to both air pollution, such as acid rain and water pollution. Millions of gallons of these chemicals pour into our waterways each year; the toxicity of the chemicals is long-term and settles into the sediments, working its way through the food chain. Further toxicity is generated as both plastic and paper bags degrade.
Energy consuming process: Even though petroleum goes into making plastic, it turns out that making a paper bag consumes four times as much energy as making a plastic bag, meaning making paper consumes a good deal of fuel. All kinds of energy chemical, electrical, and fossil fuel-based is overused to transport the raw material, turn the paper into a bag and then transport the finished paper bag all over the world.
Consumes water: The production of paper bags uses three times the amount of water it takes to make plastic bags; the wood pulp that forms the basic raw material for making paper is washed several times during processing and is then bleached; both stages require thousands of gallons of clean water. For colouring more water is needed in a ratio of 1 part pulp to 400 parts water. The pulp/water mixture is dumped into a web of bronze wires, and the water showers through, leaving the pulp, which, in turn, is rolled into paper.
Inefficient recycling: The process of recycling paper can be wasteful and uneconomical as it often consumes more fuel than it would take to make a new bag. In addition, it takes about 91 percent more energy to recycle a pound of paper than a pound of plastic.
Waste production: According to some measures, paper bags generate 80 percent more solid waste. In landfills, paper bags produce over twice as much atmospheric waste as plastic, making them doubtful as the better choice for the environment.
Biodegrading problems: Astonishingly, the Environment Protection Agency has reported that in landfills, paper does not degrade all that much faster than plastics. Also, paper bags weigh nearly ten times their equivalent in plastic, requiring more fuel to ship them out to stores. Made with chemicals processed at high temperatures, paper bag production releases many toxins into the atmosphere at much the same rate as plastic production.
However, while polythene and other plastic products are considered useful and practical by populace and have become part of our daily routine, they are not friendly, it all began when people started to use and dispose polythene indiscriminately leading to the accumulation of waste polythene, and with no effective disposal system, the environmental consequences led to aggravating the situation.
Rubbish: Today the polythene bags have become a recurrent spectacle at most of the places, we can see them hanging from railings, branches of trees, lying in heaps of refuse, floating on the surfaces of water bodies and finally choking the drains, gutters, sewers causing water and sewage to overflow and become the breeding grounds of germs and bacteria that cause diseases.
Danger to wildlife: A matter of concern is the general practice to pack up the kitchen refuse in a polybag and throw it away. Rarely do the people realize that by doing so they are forbidding the biodegradable kitchen waste to get decomposed freely in the soil by microbes or even allowing the same to be eaten by animals. It is rather common to see cows and other stray animals try to tear open the polythene bags in the lookout for food. It has been reported that many such stray cows die due to consumption of polythene bags and are choked to death due to blockade of their digestive tract following consumption of the toxic polythene bag. In the water bodies many fish and other aquatic animals swallow the plastic garbage thinking them as food items and are consequently choked to death.
Long-term degrading: Light breaks the plastic down, therefore, it photodegrades rather than biodegrades. Estimates say that this process can take up to 500 or even 1000 years in landfills. If polythene bags are burnt for disposal, they release deadly toxics like dioxin and furans, as they are made up of chlorinated compounds, the effects of which on human health are well-documented facts. Dumping of polythene bags in the ground is also not ecologically safe due to their non-degradable nature. Mechanical shredding of polythene reduces the fertility of soil as the shreds get mixed up with the soil particles. Moreover, burying of polythene bags in mountainous regions loosens the grip on vegetation and soil binding, causing landslides. It also makes the soil unsuitable for construction. Thus, it is not safe to throw, dump or even burn the polythene.
Coloured bags: In order to make them elegant and stylish most of the polythene bags are made brightly colored and for adding color various toxic chemicals or binding agents like lead and cadmium are added to the polythene. This color can be hazardous if mixed with any food stuff carried inside colored polythene.
All these factors and more have made the question whether plastic or paper is a right choice. Most environmental groups say that it is best to avoid the choice altogether; instead we should diligently reuse bags. We shall be able to save our environment only when we become aware that environmentally destructive practices threaten everyone’s health and livelihood and no one will be able to insulate him from global warming when the conditions worsen.
The facts are astounding and we could go on and on as to why it is so very important that you stop using paper and plastic now.
• Reusable bags save trees
• Reusable bags save water
• Reusable bags save gas and oil
• Reusable bags help prevent air pollution
• Reusable bags help our oceans
• Reusable bags help our sea creatures
• Reusable bags help our families!
Over a lifetime, use of reusable bags by just one person would save over 22,000 plastic/paper bags. Isn’t that amazing? Best still is to ask store clerks to hand you easily transportable items without bags.
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