Plastic vs Paper: what’s worst?

It is common knowledge that plastic should be avoided when being able to choose between plastic packages over paper ones. Is it always true? What to consider when making this important choice? Let’s find out, as always, together.

First, we need to understand that there are different varieties of plastic around. For today’s discussion, we will be considering the most common plastic used for bags in the supermarkets: it is called Polyethylene. This particular material is derived from natural gases (mainly methane) and petroleum.

It has to be cleared once and for all. The main concern over this very useful material when ending up in an environment different than your local landfill is not that it will decompose and then contaminate the surrounding ecosystems, but exactly the opposite: it won’t, or rather it will, but it will take VERY long time. The plastic itself doesn’t cause any harm but it often ends up in the stomach of animals, or worst is deposed in areas not intended to be used as landfill, and it will stay there for a very long time. We’ll talk about landfills on different occasions, but it’s worth to mention a few facts here. Basically, landfills are areas, outside the urban area of a city, where waste is disposed of. If we interfere in the process of bringing the plastic from our bin to the landfill, it will end up somewhere where is not supposed to be, and it will stay there for centuries before decomposing, shaking the balance of that given ecosystems, sometimes transforming it completely.

And so, the paper is better, isn’t it?

Well, guys, I wish I could openly agree with you, but that’s not the case.

Paper is a fine material more or less easily recyclable, very useful as well and it has a wide use range. The best paper you could use would be handmade from recycled paper. However, most, if not all, the paper used today is industrially produced. The production of paper involves few steps, during which a big deal of chemicals are used, whether for separating cellulose fibres and removing water from the unfinished batch. Still, recycled paper industrially-made could be a good choice.

But what about virgin paper?

Here’s where the problem arises. As you all may know, paper comes from trees. Don’t get fooled by a campaign that promises you to plant 10 trees for each one that is chopped: out of these 10, in natural condition, some of the seeds could get eaten by wild animals. Maintenance and care of trees often require skilled labour, which in any case will have a carbon footprint. Most of all, even assuming that all of the 10 trees will make it without human care, it will be a great deal of time before their photosynthesis will match and subsequently outweigh the one of the mature tree you just chopped. That’s because, in case you didn’t notice, trees grow slowly.

“So why do we produce virgin paper?” you might be asking. Well, recycled fibres of the used paper are weaker and so more susceptible to breakage, especially when in contact with liquids or melting frozen.

However, the funny side in this story is that recycled paper is used in supermarkets, even though their bags are more likely to break down. The industry that uses the more of virgin paper seems to be the fashion: obviously, in fashion, everything needs to look nice and tidy, imagine if you would examine with a microscope that bag from your favourite brand once you’re back home, for sure you would notice that some of the linens used are broken, that doesn’t look really trendy, does it?

It is just another paradox of how we perceive and manage materials: in my opinion, if well disposed of, plastic is a good material. We take it from the ground, we use it (supposedly more than once) and then we return it where it belongs, allowing centuries to play their part and transforming it back to what it comes from. Virgin paper, on the other hand, is always a missed opportunity, a chopped tree that will be replaced faster than the plastic bag but will have a general negative impact on the shorter term. 

So next time you’re shopping, if you are dumb enough not to have a strong carrier or a backpack, consider asking the cashier or the store manager whether their bag are made of virgin paper: if the answer is yes, at least now you know what you’re contributing to.

We will be talking more about plastic and papers and their controversy in the following posts but always with the pure truth and fair analyze in mind: as we have seen today, digging deeper on a given subject can reveal the unexpected side of a long told story.

Are your shopping habits sustainable? If so, let me know in the comment and don’t forget to stay Green!

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