Many people across the globe are interested in reducing their environmental footprint and switching away from traditional plastics. You may think paper bags for example, are the best alternative to traditional plastic bags, however you could be wrong and you should understand your options.
Paper bags are environmentally friendly in terms of their ability to break down in a composting environment, however, they use a large amount of trees and mass energy and water to manufacture. This is overall, not as great for the environment as biodegradable or compostable plastics. Consider before you switch to paper.
Why Do We Use Plastic?
Plastic is something that is around us everyday, essentially everywhere we go. It’s used for everything from pillow filling and manufacturing to insulation and food or drink containers. It was created in the 1800s as an alternative to animal products for combs, medallions, cutlery and other items around the home.
Plastic is used in so many different areas of life, it’s not possible as yet to completely get rid of it. The substance is relied upon by so many industries and people that it can be found everywhere you turn. As a cheap alternative, plastic is easy to manufacture, mass produce and use.
It’s also hardy enough for uses such as carry bags, food or drink containers, medical devices and building supplies. This makes finding alternatives difficult and more expensive, even if they’re better for the environment. It was only decades later plastic was seen as an emerging issue.
You can find out more about the origins of plastic in this blog.
Are There Alternatives To Plastic?
With interest rising in consumers looking to find an alternative to plastic, ‘bioplastics’ are becoming more and more popular. Of course, there are not enough items made to replace all plastics but there are some great alternatives to lower your personal landfill contributions.
Bioplastics are classed as a range of plastic alternatives made from renewable sources such as organic materials. These plastics are more sustainable and environmentally friendly than traditional plastics. They are currently more expensive to manufacture as they aren’t as widely used as traditional plastic yet.
Bioplastics are considered safer for the environment from their manufacturing process which uses less resources and produces lower emissions, through to their ability to be disposed of and return to natural matter.
These plastics are made from renewable materials such as corn starch, tapioca starch and others. This means that when they are disposed of correctly, they reduce waste. They are able to be either quickly broken down (when it comes to landfill disposal) or composted back into the earth.
We can class compostable, PLA (polylactic acid) and biodegradable as the top three bioplastics on the market.
Other plastic alternatives in terms of bags include paper, fabric, recycled plastic and other woven options. These can be reused many times, washed (when it comes to fabric) and also able to be stored for long periods and carried longer distances with heavier weights.
Read more about other uses for plastic bags and their alternatives in this blog.
What Are Biodegradable And Compostable Plastics?
There are many ‘bioplastics’ emerging into the market, and there are several key differences between the popular biodegradable and compostable items, from material make up to decomposition and the environment in which they can break down.
To look at biodegradable, they are manufactured to break down to their natural components over time. They are manufactured with a mix of organic and chemical compounds, with added microbes engineered to attract the right microbes to decompose quickly.
Compostable plastics, however, are 100 per cent natural and are made to return to the environment when they break down and also to provide nutrients to that environment. These are made from organic materials and able to be decomposed quickly with a home or industrial composter.
Learn about the difference between compostable and biodegradable plastics here.
Why Consider Plastic Alternatives?
Let’s be real, we all know traditional plastic is terrible for our environment when it comes to pollution, landfill contribution and toxicity or danger to wildlife, marine life and soil. Traditional plastic takes decades to centuries to break down and leaves behind toxic residue, macro and microplastics.
However, compostable materials can be composted either in a home composter or industrial composting facility and returned to its natural form. The manufacturing process is overall more sustainable and environmentally friendly than that of traditional plastics as no toxic fumes are released and it uses less electricity and water.
Biodegradable can break down more rapidly in a landfill environment due to specially designed microbes. However, due to the traditional plastic chemicals present, they can leave behind some toxic residue.
When disposed of correctly, all three options – compostable, PLA and biodegradable – can take centuries off the time it takes traditional plastic to break down. However, biodegradable plastics can leave behind toxic chemicals when decomposing and compostable plastics do not.
On the other hand, if you don’t dispose of compostable plastic correctly and drop it in landfill, it will take a long time to decompose like traditional plastic. There are biodegradable plastics that, unlike, compostable, are able to decompose quickly in landfill environments.
Read more about compostable plastic alternatives in this article.
Why Paper Bags?
Paper bags are an alternative to traditional plastic as they are classed as sustainable options. Paper bags have advantages over plastic being that they are made from natural materials i.e. trees that grow in the ground and can break back down into natural matter.
Benefits of paper bags include:
- Able to be composted in a worm farm, home or industrial composter
- Turn into great fertilizer when composted
- Environmentally friendly
- Non-toxic for wildlife, soil or people.
Why NOT Paper Bags?
Unfortunately, paper bags also have some negative impacts on the environment which you may not be aware of. Yes, they are great for all the aforementioned reasons, BUT, they can also negatively affect the environment.
Some negatives of using paper bags include:
- Manufacturing takes around four times as much as energy than traditional plastic bags
- Chemicals and fertilizers used to grow and manufacture these bags can be harmful
- Paper bags use a LOT of trees which are a natural resource and take years to grow to maturity
- Encourage clearing of trees.
So consider your options and what you will do to dispose them before making your decision to switch.
Why Can’t We Stop Using Plastics If There Are Alternatives?
Although there are plastic alternatives on the market that are growing in popularity and availability, it is currently not possible to ban plastic completely or stop using it. Until there are alternatives for everything from building supplies and medical implants to water bottles and toys, it’s not possible to ban plastic in its entirety.
These alternatives also need to be cost-effective for manufacturing and purchase as well as maintain the same, strong properties of traditional plastic. Plastic is used in so many different areas of life that it would take many decades or centuries to replace plastic with viable alternatives.
Other disadvantages can include:
- People will switch to alternatives that aren’t any better – for example, paper bags use large amounts of trees and energy to produce as a plastic alternative.
- Plastics aren’t the biggest issue with pollution – solvents and cleaning chemicals also pose a great risk to the ocean and environment.
- Switching from plastics may encourage people to be less eco-minded in other choices. For example, they have recycled or used compostable plastics so don’t consider which cleaning chemicals or how much meat they purchase.
- Weaker or less resilient alternatives in important items – compostable and biodegradable are often a bit weaker, with bags ripping easier or not holding liquid. For important items such as packaging, medical supplies or implants, this could pose an issue.
Again, it all comes down to research, understanding and commitment to your choice. Being prepared will help you get the most out of your eco-friendly switch.
With such growing interest in switching to plastic alternatives, paper bags present an enticing option to many. However, do you understand your alternatives, how to dispose of them and their real impact on the environment and wildlife?
Paper bags unfortunately aren’t that great an alternative as you think. Sure, they’re environmentally friendly in terms of their ability to break down in a composting environment and that they’re made from natural materials, However, they use a large amount of trees and mass energy and water to manufacture.
This is overall, not as great for the environment as biodegradable or compostable plastics. So consider your options when looking to switch from traditional plastics. Paper bags can be used in some situations – i.e. gift bags or small carry bags or other paper options such as food service.
However, you may not wish to use these as an alternative to single-use carry bags when there are other options such as fabric (reusable), compostable or biodegradable plastics. These can prove a much more sustainable and long-term eco-friendly solution over paper bags.