Paper bags are no better than plastic ones

Sunil Duggal | Updated on: Jun 04, 2018

Saving the earth | Photo Credit: Man As Thep

To save the environment, we must start using cloth and canvas bags, which will also create more jobs in rural areas

On the occasion of World Environment Day, it is a proud moment for all, that India has been entrusted to host this day under the theme “Beat Plastic Pollution”.

It is astonishing to know that every year the world uses about one trillion plastic bags. Each year, at least 8 million tonnes of plastic end up in the oceans, the equivalent of a full garbage truck every minute.

In the last decade, we produced more plastic than in the whole of last century. Fifty per cent of the plastic we use is single-use or disposable. We buy one million plastic bottles every minute. Plastic makes up 10 per cent of all of the waste we generate.

Plastics began to get popular in the 1960s. Polyethylene, which today is one of the world’s most abundant plastics, had been created in 1898, and then again in 1933. It was in 1953 that high-density polyethylene was created — the plastic that’s identified in the recycling system as No. 2 and that’s generally used to make grocery store bags.

By the end of 1985, 75 per cent of supermarkets were offering plastic bags to their customers. Customers still preferred paper bags — plastic held just 25 per cent of the market.

Globally, California became the first US State to place a ban on single-use plastic shopping bags in 2015. Just how did the plastic bag become so popular in our society and so problematic to the environment?

The bags caused controversy immediately after they hit grocery stores – and not just for their environmental impacts. Suburban shoppers preferred paper grocery bags, which could stand upright in the trunks of their cars, while city-dwellers found the plastic bags with handles, easier to carry on their walk home from the store, the Los Angeles Times reported in 1986.

In spite of all the awareness spreading globally, the global market for plastic bag and pouch manufacturing is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 4.1 per cent between 2016 and 2020, when the market could be worth $22.2 billion, according to the report - ‘Plastics Bag and Pouch Manufacturing: Global Markets to 2020’.

Continued economic growth, positive demographic trends, government reforms and initiatives, urbanisation and increasing income levels helped in driving the plastic bag and pouch manufacturing market, according to a report by BCC Research.

Ban on plastic bags

Some European countries, such as Germany and Denmark, have recently put in place partial or complete bans on plastic bags. Elsewhere, some supermarkets and retail stores have started to charge for plastic bags. The purpose, the report states, is to reduce the use of plastic bags and encourage the use of reusable bags.

Plastic bags tend to disrupt the environment in a serious way. They get into the soil and slowly release toxic chemicals. Animals eat them and often choke and die. Plastic bags pollute the Earth in two major ways. They are thrown into landfills and there, they stay and contaminate the Earth for at least 1,000 years and leak toxins into the Earth and also affect fresh water reserves. This is known as photo-degrading. They also release methane into the air and harm our ozone layer. Only carbon-dioxide pollutes more than the methane released from plastic bags.

Even in urban areas, where wildlife is relatively scarce, plastic bags cause significant environmental harm. Runoff water collects and carries discarded plastic bags and ultimately washes them into storm sewers. It is also affecting our fossil fuel supply.

Many countries are trying to take steps toward banning them but only a handful of cities in the US are trying to do anything about them. In fact, the US alone uses 380-400 million plastic bags annually.

Plastic bags are becoming a huge economic problem. To create one tonne, it takes $4,000. Since a tonne only sells for a few hundred dollars, plastic bag vendors are not gaining anything by producing them.

Many people are resorting to using paper bags but, are they really better than plastic bags? The answer is that paper and plastic bags have approximately the same advantages and disadvantages. Although paper bags degrade a little faster than plastic ones, they take a lot more space in landfills. This is because paper bags are bulkier than plastic bags. Plastic bags only take up 0.4 per cent of landfills but they pollute more. Paper bags take up 1.0 per cent of landfills but, they pollute the same amount as plastic bags because of their huge amounts.

Search for alternatives

The search for alternatives to plastic bags is continuing. Paper bags are a possible option but they also take their toll on the environment. The use of trees to increase the production of paper products combined with the increased energy that is required to make paper bags will also affect the environment.

Which one should we choose? The answer is neither. The solution lies in using either cloth or canvas bags. This would also help in utilisation of discarded cloth and canvas, leading to employment generation in rural areas and help in eradication of poverty.

(The author is Chief Executive Officer of Hindustan Zinc)

Published on June 04, 2018
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