Plastics aren’t the only problem

What do you mean it’s not just about plastic?!?!

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Plastics have always been the villain in our fight for a more sustainable and environmentally conscious society. With more and more organisations and businesses campaigning for a plastic-free, straw-free and zero-waste society, we’re more informed than ever of the consequences of using single-use plastics and the need to be more proactive about reducing, reusing and recycling.

In response to this, the market, naturally, has provided us with more ‘sustainable’ alternatives to plastics: paper, bamboo and stainless steel to name a few. While it’s true that these materials may be more environmentally friendly at the end of its lifespan – in the way they are broken down, recycled or biodegraded –  we seldom take into account the entirety of its life cycle in how it impacts the environment. This includes the resources and energy required for production, carbon emission produced, usage, recyclability and waste management, to name a few.

For a more focused comparison, we look at single-use plastic bags over bags made from other materials such as paper and cotton, and compare their environmental impact over the course of their lifespan.

Plastics (The Universal Villain)

The reason why plastics have become synonymous with environmental degradation is because we can see them littered around our environment with our very own eyes. There is no denying these eyesores on our beaches, waterways and in the oceans, endangering countless marine and animals lives in its path.

This is typically what happens to plastic at the end of its cycle if it’s not properly disposed of.  But, is plastic the all-encompassing villain we all make it out to be?

In comparison to paper and cotton bags, plastic bags (made from high-density polyethylene or HDPE) actually emit a lot less carbon emissions during manufacturing, require less fuel and energy to produce and transport, and also contributes less to water and air pollution.

Though often criticised for being a waste hazard – taking between 20 to 1000 years to biodegrade – it takes up significantly less space in a landfill compared to its two other counterparts.

Contrary to popular belief, plastics may also be difficult to recycle depending on the type of plastic that is used to make the product.

When it comes down to it, we find that the biggest issue with plastic is in how it’s managed at the end of its life cycle. Waste management and public education is crucial in reducing the amount of plastic that’s strewn across the earth, destroying life and the beauty of mother nature.

Paper (The Anti-Hero)

With plastic’s notorious reputation, we’ve been left searching for a hero to save our sustainable endeavours. Paper has become the solution for many, under the assumption that it has a lower environmental impact.

What most fail to consider is the amount of trees that will have to be cut down and treated with chemicals to produce paper (which would otherwise be absorbing CO2). When compared to plastic, paper also requires 4 times as much water and 4 times more energy to produce, emits 3 times more greenhouse gases, and contributes to 70% more air pollution.

Well, at least it’s easily recyclable right? Paper is technically easier to process and sort in a recycling facility as it is less cumbersome than plastic. Unfortunately, recycling paper is much more inefficient, requiring 91% more energy to recycle than to make a new paper bag.

Being of a heavier, thicker material, paper also requires more fuel (think 7 lorries versus 1 for plastics) for transportation, and occupies 5 times more space in a landfill. It is also debatable whether paper actually biodegrades at a much faster rate than plastic, since most landfills lack the water, light and oxygen needed for it to decay naturally.

To match the environmental footprint of a single plastic bag, you would have to use a paper bag at least 3 times. Not an easy feat as paper bags are less durable and hard to reuse more than once, especially if its been exposed to water, oil or liquids.

A flawed hero at that.

Cotton (The Hippie)

So we turn to cotton bags – hands-down the most durable and even fashionable of all reusable bags. Often marketed by retailers as eco-friendly, light-weight, made of natural fibres, and low maintenance, cotton bags (or tote bags) have become a popular option among many hoping to reduce their environmental footprint in the world.

Sadly, it’s not all its hyped up to be.

Based on a lifetime assessment of its environmental impact, cotton fares the worst of all 3 materials in terms of resource consumption and carbon emissions produced. It is a resource-intensive and water guzzling crop, requiring large amounts of land, pesticides and fertiliser to grow, harvest and process it. As it’s bulky and much heavier, it also requires more fuel for transportation (80 lorries versus 1 lorry for plastics), and occupies the most space in a landfill.

On the plus side, it is made from a renewable resource, takes only about 10 to 20 years to biodegrade and is fully recyclable. But is that enough?

Perhaps. To match the environmental impact of 1 plastic bag, it needs to be used 131 times – not too difficult considering how lightweight and highly durable this material is. The difficulty lies in remembering to bring these bags out with us, and reusing them frequently for a considerable number of years.

This is just too confusing, so which type of bag or material should I use?

There is no one right answer or choice here. It depends on your lifestyle, usage patterns and needs.

If you can’t avoid taking a plastic bag, try to use it as many times as you can, and dispose of it by using it as a bin liner.

Same goes for paper bags. You can repurpose them for craft projects, or use prettier ones as gift bags. If you can compost them yourself, even better!

As for cotton bags, most of us probably own 1, if not more. This makes it difficult for us to reuse all of them sufficiently. All we can do now is to stop buying them and refuse any bags given to us in the future, conscientiously reusing what we already own.

At the end of the day, we should all strive towards limiting single-use and disposable products, no matter the material, and make the most out of reusable items. Make it a habit!

If you’d like to kickstart your journey to eliminate single-use everything, check out our eco-friendly guide for reusable items that you should always have in your bag.