Wednesday 11 September 2019

Paper or Plastics

So which is Best?
As I begin my journey on reducing single use plastics I'm already seeing quite how much of a challenge this is going to be. Of course it's easy to think 'Oh, I'll just switch to paper' but can we be sure that paper usage is better for the environment than plastics? Seems obvious to me that it would but unfortunately there are some thoughts to consider.

Paper comes from trees, and yep trees help us breathe. So is it in our interest to cut down the very things that keep us going? In the past everything was in paper form - toilet rolls, telephone directories, hand written letters, bills, statements and so much more. 

These days telephone directories are hardly used (I haven't seen one for years!), bills and statements are coming in via online accounts and even toilet rolls can be bought as recycled tissue or bamboo based sheets that are sustainable (as bamboo is much quicker to grow). 

Hand written letters and even physical cards are becoming a thing of the past as email and e-cards are more popular these days. So for me using paper if manufactured responsibly and replaced sustainably could be a compromise.
But there are still points to consider..
Trees take an age to grow and requires massive resources to cut down. Did you know that it takes three tons of wood chip to make one ton of pulp? This in turn requires thousands of tons of water to wash it plus one part pulp to 400 parts water to then turn it into paper? [source: treehugger]

Disposing of the paper bag is more ideal than plastic as it can be composted down in a matter of months. If added to landfill however even compostable materials struggle to breakdown, as they maybe encased in sealed containers to prevent methane buildup, so your paper bag may be sitting around for years. 

Recycling paper uses chemicals to seperate the pulp fibres and then have to be washed again using yet more of Earth's resources before rolling back into paper.

In addition, it takes about 91 percent more energy to recycle a pound of paper than a pound of plastic. [source: betterbagsbetterworld]
The Plastic Conundrum
Plastic meanwhile is a by-product of the oil industry and readily available and quick to make. Plastic bags can be melted down to be recycled (though this requires 2/3 of the energy required for the virgin bags to be made). The material is also downgraded during the recycling process.

Trouble is, plastics have the disadvantage of being used as a throw away item. It can easily catch in wind, be washed into water ways, don't decompose for eons and are capable of leaching chemicals into soil and water (as well as the awful affects of birds, mammals and sea life ingesting them on a daily basis). 

Recycling machines are often clogged up by plastic bags, which is why supermarkets are required to take bags in their collection bins to keep it away from recycling plants. 

Plastic through trees

BBC documentary found plastic bags from the UK were being found in dumps as far away as Malaysia, as our plastics are being dumped on other countries overseas [they found plastics were being bundled en-masse by some councils so not necessarily putting the blame on supermarkets].

Bio-degradeable plastic however, has a problem all of its own which I'll cover in a future post. So by now you're thinking 'Oh my goodness, just what IS the best for the planet?' 

I guess, reducing our desire to 'use once and throw away' would help. Use longer lasting bags from hemp, cotton or canvas would help cut down on throw away bags. I've also heard of a Chico Bag which is polyester made from seven recycled soda bottles.
What if you're in a store and realise you've forgotten your bags? 
Sometimes we pick up a box that supermarkets may have strategically placed on the way out and use that rather than reach for more plastic!

In future topics I will cover alternatives for plastics, including reviews of some of them I've started to use, plus a look at what supermarkets are doing to reduce waste and what do all those recycling symbols mean anyway? Plus more news and views - stay tuned!
Some useful links..