Replacing single-use plastic with single-use paper is not the answer
The recent announcement that U.K. grocery chain Morrisons would be replacing plastic produce bags with paper bags was greeted with cheers by many who are concerned about the environmental impact of single-use plastics. Understandably so – this move is expected to prevent the use of 150 million plastic bags. That’s 150 million bags that won’t be in landfill or the ocean for centuries to come (yes, plastic can take that long to break down). We strongly support that outcome.
But at the same time, let’s not jump to replace those 150 million plastic bags with 150 million paper bags. That’s not the answer, and it misses the forest for the trees. (Or in this case, maybe the trees for the ocean pollution?)
Replacing single-use plastic with single-use paper merely replaces one set of environmental problems with another. Yes, paper bags are more easily recyclable than plastic produce bags and may even be compostable, but the amount of energy and water required to produce paper bags is significantly greater. And, of course, paper production requires large quantities of trees.
While plastic’s carbon footprint is smaller, plastic is a manmade material (primarily made from fossil fuels, no less) that exists, for all intents and purposes, forever. It also leaches chemicals as it breaks down, and if it escapes into the environment (which happens more often than you may realize), it poses a threat to wildlife.
Fortunately we don’t need to debate paper vs. plastic because there’s a better solution. Instead of using disposable products, whether paper or plastic or something else entirely, we can move towards reusable products. Or skip them altogether!
Single-use products perpetuate a continuous and unsustainable cycle of production, transportation, use, and disposal. Recycling helps, but the recycling process itself uses energy and it doesn’t eliminate the need to keep making more produce bags or water bottles or other single-use items. Recycling a water bottle into insulation material may be better than putting it in landfill, but it’s not going to reduce the demand for more water bottles. Reusable bottles will. Every time we refill our stainless steel or glass bottles, we’re both keeping a plastic one from being made and from being discarded.
Let’s get back to produce bags. Did you know most produce doesn’t need a bag? Potatoes, onions, carrots, peppers, bananas, to name a few – they’re all fine going straight into your basket. “But the baskets are dirty,” you might say. Let’s assume that’s true. Barring a very serious breach of hygiene, it’s still a non-issue. First of all, you’re going to wash this produce before you use it, and secondly, if you’re buying from a standard grocer, this produce has been harvested, packed, loaded onto a truck, sorted, and likely handled by other customers all before it reached your basket. Putting it into a plastic bag for the last leg is not going to make a difference. For items where you might like a bag (lettuce, grapes, mushrooms, bulk items like beans, grains, seeds, and nuts), there are reusable bags. Many stores can deduct the tare weight (the weight of the bag) if you check with them beforehand. (For items like lettuce that are priced by the head and not by weight, it’s even easier!)
Reducing our use of plastic is an admirable and important goal. Plastic pollution is a real and serious threat to the environment. But let’s make sure that in our excitement to go plastic free, we aren’t missing the broader point. If our ultimate goal is a more sustainable society, we can’t rely on a silver (or paper) bullet to replace single-use plastic packaging and goods. Single-use is not sustainable. Let’s do what we can to refuse and reuse. And when we do choose paper, let’s be thoughtful about it, and make sure it’s recycled when we can no longer reuse it.
Three single-use items where you can avoid paper AND plastic:
1) produce bags – skip them or opt for reusable cloth bags
2) grocery bags – choose reusable
3) straws – skip them or go with reusable alternatives like bamboo, stainless steel, or glass