Updated: Apr 17
It ends up floating through deep currents and harming marine wildlife, decomposing at a glacial rate at the bottom of the ocean due to the mere recklessness of tossing away a plastic bag or the straw in your beverage.
Plastic is a clear enemy to the Earth.
That is what we have been told, anyway. Again, and again, we are told paper is the more sustainable alternative.
But how good of an alternative can paper really be if we do not recycle it properly? Unaisah Bhula’s article ‘To recycle or not to recycle: Mismanagement, misinformation and misconceptions about recycling’ explores the devastating effects of recycling incorrectly. The article highlights that despite most British people recycling, “82% put items in the recycling bin that can’t be recycled.”ᶦ Improper recycling ultimately equates to the same impact of not recycling at all.
Plastic is made from crude oil, natural gases, and coal – all of which are fossil fuels. Therefore, ‘the manufacturing process is terrible for the planet’ᶦᶦ. This would imply that a longer manufacturing time towards the creation of a single product could be a contributing factor to its negative effects on the environment. Let us now consider the manufacturing process of paper in comparison to that of plastic.
Creating paper is a much longer job than most of us probably think. It requires trees to be de-barked, ‘cut into woodchips, and then fed into large pressure boilers called digesters.’ᶦᵛ The woodchips are reduced to a pulp, which is deposited into a ‘high-speed, mesh screen loop’ᵛ that reduces water content, leaving a thin layer of raw paper. The raw paper is pressed and heated, removing any remaining traces of water before being treated with a starch solution which seals the surface of the paper. A longer process means more energy is being used, suggesting paper may be doing more harm than good.
Not only is the process for paper longer than plastic’s, but the manufacturing of paper products is also more energy intensive. A paper bag takes ‘more than four times as much energy to manufacture than a plastic bag’ᵛᶦ.
As well as this, ‘paper in landfills does not degrade or break down at a substantially faster rate than plastic does.’ᵛᶦᶦ Paper bags take up ‘more space than a plastic bag in a landfill’ᵛᶦᶦᶦ, but due to a higher rate of recycling paper, this is seen as less of an issue. So does this mean plastic is better?
The upshot is that neither plastic nor paper comes without its own environmental disadvantages. Plastic is non-biodegradable, and largely harmful to wildlife and sea life. Paper is more energy intensive and its only redeeming factor appears to be that it is recycled at a higher rate. Therefore, thinking that paper is a wiser alternative to plastic should all be taken with a grain of salt.
ᶦ Unaisah Bhula, ‘To Recycle or Not to Recycle: Mismanagement, Misinformation and Misconceptions about Recycling’ (University of Leicester Pro Bono Climate Crisis Blog, April 22 2021) < https://www.uolprobono.co.uk/post/blog-by-unaisah-bhula > accessed 30 July 2021
ᶦᶦ Lucy, ‘Why is Plastic Bad for the Planet?’ ( The Waste Management and Recycling Blog, 20 September 2019) < https://www.forgerecycling.co.uk/blog/why-is-plastic-bad-for-the-planet/ > accessed 30 July 2021
ᶦᶦᶦ Ecoenclose, ‘Paper Versus Plastic (And Bio-Plastic)’ < https://www.ecoenclose.com/Paper-versus-Plastic-and-Bio-Plastic-/ > accessed 30 July 2021
ᶦᵛ Ecoenclose, ‘Paper Versus Plastic (And Bio-Plastic)’ < https://www.ecoenclose.com/Paper-versus-Plastic-and-Bio-Plastic-/ > accessed 30 July 2021
ᵛᶦᶦ Kirsty Bell and Suzie Cave, ‘Comparison of Environmental Impact of Plastic, Paper and Cloth Bags’ (National Ireland Assembly Research and library Service Briefing Note, 11 February 2011 < http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/globalassets/documents/raise/publications/2011/environment/3611.pdf > accessed 30 July 2021