Paper or Plastic?

05 Jul 2011

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Paper or plastic? Ever wonder which is actually the right choice?

Environmentalists, bag manufacturers and garbage specialists have all wondered the same thing, but they come up with different answers.

Plastic bags end up in landfills, or on roadsides, or in lakes and streams, where they prove quite a hazard to wildlife, which choke on the bags.

But bag manufacturers and garbage experts say that in the long run, plastic wins over paper.

"Paper bags are easier to recycle, but they weigh 10 times as much," says Robert Bateman of Roplast Industries, a bag manufacturer. "And paper bags use more energy and cause more waste in the process of manufacturing."

A paper bag eats up almost three times as much energy in the manufacturing process, says Bateman, who's also a past president of the Plastic Bag Association.

That's not something usually emphasized by environmentalists trying to reduce plastic use.

"Plastic bags come out on the right side of the equation on everything except the recycling side," Bateman says.

Is paper better?

Ask a professor specializing in garbage whether paper is better than plastic, and he'll say the equation is relatively easy to solve.

"The answer is very simple and very straightforward," says garbologist Bill Rathje, at the Archaeology Center of Stanford University and a leading authority on what is in America's garbage.

"It's not one that the paper-bag people like to hear. In a dry landfill, paper bags don't degrade any faster than plastic bags. In a normal, well-run landfill, paper bags do not biodegrade any faster over at least 40 years than plastic."

The problem with paper is that it's fatter, he explains.

"Paper bags are much bulkier than plastic, so they fill up more landfill space," Rathje says. "They're three to five times bulkier than plastic, and you can see that yourself at the grocery. Landfills are closing down because they're full. From that perspective, plastic is much better than paper."

Bag manufacturer executive Bateman says that a lot of the wildlife-are-hurt argument is based on anecdotal evidence.

“A seal eating plastic is very rare," he says. "Plastics are durable and light and tend to float. As far as damaging other wildlife is concerned, the worst of it is sort of anecdotal and not representative of what's going on."

The plastic bag is winning the global popularity contest, manufacturers say, and part of that is because plastic is cheap.

"The paper bag is a mass-commodity product and is dying because of the costs involved -- specifically, because of the energy costs," explains Bateman. "Paper is energy-intensive compared to plastic.

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