Each year, over 1 trillion plastic bags are used worldwide. Yes, that’s a 1 with 12 zeros. Most of these bags are used only once, after which they are discarded (only a tiny percentage are recycled).
It’s quite hard to imagine such an enormous amount of plastic rubbish, but it’s not hard to realise this is not a good thing. Each of these plastic bags can take 500 - 1000 years to degrade, or maybe even longer, scientists don’t really know, but they’re pretty convinced it’s a very, very long time.
So how do we tackle this huge environmental problem?
We could simply start using fewer plastic bags and reuse any that we do use. This may be a tough sell however. Another solution may be switching to paper bags. But are paper bags really that much better than plastic ones?
Let’s have a look at some of the environmental benefits of paper bags.
Paper bags are easier to recycle
Most paper bags are recyclable. Almost any paper bag that does not contain any plastic and isn’t contaminated with food can be recycled. Paper can’t be recycled endlessly however. After having been recycled 5 - 7 times, a paper bag has to be discarded. If the paper is not or minimally inked, it can then be composted.
Recycling paper does not come without its environmental issues unfortunately.
Harsh chemicals and significant amounts of water and energy are needed during the paper recycling process.
Not as harmful to marine life
Paper bags degrade faster in water than plastic bags and they will often sink to the bottom, whereas plastic bags usually float. Paper also doesn’t soak up pollutants as plastic does. This means paper bags are much less likely to cause harm to marine life.
Paper bags hold more stuff
On average, a paper bag can hold more than a plastic one because they hold more volume and are stronger.
Although there are some environmental benefits of using paper bags over plastic, neither are very environmentally friendly. Paper bags require more natural resources to produce than plastic bags, and recycling them still requires significant use of energy and water. A better option is to use reusable canvas bags.