Paper or Plastic?

The recent decision by New York State to prohibit single-use plastic bags from retail stores makes it an ideal time to reexamine one of my favorite environmental quandaries. Plastic grocery bags were developed as a substitute for paper bags in the late 1970s. It was promoted as a way to save trees and prevent the cutting down of our forests.

The opinion that paper is superior to plastic for the environment is not really based on science or fact. It is based on misunderstandings about the way that plastic bags are made, how a landfill works and the assumption that non-biodegradable products are bad for the planet. 

But what about cotton bags? According to, they must be reused thousands of times before they equal the environmental performance of plastic bags. The Denmark researchers note that organic cotton is even worse than conventional cotton in relation to environmental impact. According to the article, organic cotton bags must be reused more times than conventional cotton bags based on the assumption that organic cotton has a 30% lower yield rate per acre than conventional cotton, and therefore was presumed to require up to 30% more resources like water, to grow the same amount. Everything we do, every bag, whether plastic, paper or cotton, has some kind of an impact on the environment.

But plastic bags are reusable. Some of the ways I reuse plastic grocery bags are as trash can liners, item storage and storing paint brushes for use the following day so they don’t dry out. With this ban, I will be forced to buy plastic bags for these purposes. So the ban on plastic bags will not reduce my use of plastic bags and will in fact create more waste and cost me money.

The discussion over the environmental impact of paper versus plastic has led to a number of life cycle assessment studies in Europe and North America. These evaluations show that regular plastic bags are much safer for the ecosystem than paper bags are.

In 2011, an Irish government research paper said that “it takes more than four times as much energy to manufacture a paper bag as it does to manufacture a plastic bag.” According to research, the manufacturing process also produces a greater amount of toxic chemicals when compared to making single-use plastic bags.

The Ontario Ministry of the Environment collected data that tracked the province’s plastic bag reduction program. It shows a 59.1% rate in the reduction in the use of plastic shopping bags. The United Kingdom’s Environmental Agency did a study of paper supermarket bags and found that they contribute three times as much to global warming than plastic shopping bags do.

A published Life Cycle Assessment, from EcoBilan, a division of Price Coopers Waterhouse, shows that in their manufacture, paper bags consumes over xxx times more energy than the manufacture of plastic bags. They also said that paper bag manufacture consumes over four times more water than the manufacture of plastic bags. Many studies agree that paper bags carry a substantial environmental impact in their manufacture that is not seen with plastic bags.

It is not easy to reuse paper bags because they have a tendency to tear and they get soggy when they get wet. Paper grocery bags are heavier than plastic bags. The typical plastic shopping bag weighs 0.28 ounces whereas a standard, 20 pound, Kraft paper, grocery bag weighs over 1¾ ounces. The largest and most significant result of changing from plastic to paper grocery bags will be the additional amount of volume and weight that paper bags will add to the solid waste stream. This additional amount will include a significant increase in the volume of greenhouse gas emissions that are generated to transport it to the landfills.

Plastic bags also play an unseen role in the conservation of the planet. In Canada, plastic bags are made from the ethane that is usually burned off during the natural gas refining process. Burning off this gas as opposed to using it to manufacture plastic bags also adds to the greenhouse gas in our atmosphere.

It takes only one truck to carry two million plastic bags but seven trucks to ship the same number of paper bags. The contrasts connected to plastic and paper strongly indicates why banning plastic bags won’t help. We are merely swapping one problem for another.

 Case in point, in 2006, Taiwan rescinded a ban on plastic bags in their fast food sector. The ban led to an increase in the use of paper bags with a substantial increase in waste management costs and greenhouse gas emissions. Nothing is without a downside.

To be honest, a plastic bag doesn’t create very many problems just sitting in a landfill. The problem comes about when people don’t throw away their bags appropriately and the bags end up flying around in the wild, obstructing waterways and becoming a threat to wildlife. Rather than banning plastic bags, maybe we just should take personal responsibility and dispose of them properly. It is a shame that the government has to pass laws to get us to do what we should.

Loss of a tree

I contributed to global warming a tiny bit more than usual recently. When we moved in to our home over 40 years ago there were two maple trees and an ash tree that provided shade in the summer, but now they were showing their age. The maples had reached a height where I could no longer stop the branches from rubbing against my siding and roof when they blew in the wind, much like a kitten rubs against your legs, when they want to be pet. This was causing damage that was unavoidable and unacceptable to me. There was also an ash tree in my front yard that was wrapping it’s hands around the wires heading to my house, the power lines and the phone line. 

I had considered having some tree work done since about 2010 when I started noticing an increased amount of branches of all sizes in our yard every time we had a wind storm.

Originally, I called a tree guy just to have the offending limbs trimmed and the ash removed before they caused any more problems. It was not an easy decision, at first. When he arrived he looked over my trees and we sat down on my porch.

In a tone reminiscent of a doctor telling you your test results, he asked if I wanted the good news or the bad news first. I opted to hear the good news first. He said that the ash tree in my front yard was healthy and showed no evidence of the emerald ash borer beetle that was devastating hundreds of millions of trees in North America. He said he wouldn’t remove it but could trim it so if it was uprooted in a storm or died it would simply fall away from my house without taking my wires with it. He said he could also trim back the maple that was becoming overly friendly with my house and my new addition. So far so good.

The bad news was the sugar maple that was shading the majority of my house had seen better days and was rotting from the inside out. He said he could trim that one also but it was only a matter of time before it died completely and came crashing down, possibly into my house. Well, I had anticipated cutting one tree down and trimming two others just not the ones he suggested. So we agreed on a price and he scheduled the carnage for a later date.

As the maple tree’s last days loomed ahead of us, my wife and I were asking ourselves whether this was the right decision. Who really knew just how long this tree would stand, offering us shade and the neighborhood birds a place to live. This tree and the shade that it provided, was one of the things that first attracted us to this place. But, over 40 years later, it was dying off.

Early the morning of the bloodshed, after reading the day’s news and having breakfast, I walked over to the maple’s trunk. I gazed up through its branches and leaves one last time. I watched as the shadows of the leaves formed ever changing patterns on the side of my house and I sighed. How could something that moved this much be dying. And I hugged it. I actually became a tree hugger. I thanked the tree for all its service, patted the trunk and, as a single tear streamed down my face, turned and headed back into my house.

The tree guy and his crew arrived shortly after that to take care of business. It was interesting to watch how they removed the limbs over my house without dropping then on my roof. It was like a midair ballet.

Later that day, I went out to check the chainsaw’s progress, which is probably a strange way to refer to the end of a life. There were a few hollow parts in the upper branches but a section of the trunk was emptier than my own heart. They loaded up the wood (I’m sure they have a firewood business also) and hauled it off.

I was impressed that, when the tree was down, they ground out the stump, they raked up all the chips and filled the hole with topsoil. The topsoil was probably a better grade of dirt than on the rest of my yard.

 I am now surprised just how much light comes in thru my dining room window. Even at night the street lights shine in so much that I don’t need night lights anymore.

A recent study published in the journal Science stated that the Earth has enough open space to be able to plant more than one trillion trees. They said this is enough to capture some 800 billion tons of carbon dioxide. I am sure the loss of my one tree won’t make much of a difference in global warming but it sure has made a difference to me.