Images of ocean plastic pollution are causing so much revulsion that many people are switching to more ‘environmentally friendly’ materials to try to reduce their impact. But does this actually work? How much greener are the alternatives?
Plastic v Paper
It’s easy to see how paper bags seem more environmentally-friendly than plastic ones. They are made from trees, which grow in nature, and can biodegrade when they are finished with. But research consistently finds that paper bags have a far higher carbon footprint than plastic ones, because the process of making them uses so much energy. Trees may be in harmony with nature, but the process for mashing them up into paper isn’t.
True, paper bags can decompose, but it’s not exactly zero waste to use so much energy producing something that’s not designed to last. And if you’re careful to reuse and recycle a plastic bag, it should be possible to prevent it ending up as litter or in the ocean, whereas every single paper bag will have made a hefty contribution to global warming, regardless of where it ends up. The best option, of course, is to avoid the problem of single-use waste altogether by using reusable bags.
If you’re a business and you want to offer something to customers who’ve forgotten their own bags, consider doing as Arjuna Wholefoods in Cambridge does, which is to invite people to drop off their old plastic bags to be reused. Alternatively, bags made from recycled materials is the next best thing. Just please don’t hand out new single-use bags for free, as this doesn’t reflect how much it costs the earth to produce them.
As for the idea that paper is ‘more recyclable’ than plastic, this has now been repeated so many times, that it’s become almost fact. It’s true that paper can be recycled, but the quality of it degrades in the process. Plastic can also be recycled, although some types of plastic are easier to recycle than others, and packaging that mixes plastic with other materials can be more tricky to recycle (single-use coffee cups are the most well-known example of this).
So, in terms of recyclability, there isn’t that much to be gained from choosing paper-based products over plastic ones, and anyway, it’s a mistake to be overly focused on how recyclable something is, when most of the impacts of the stuff we consume is in the process of producing it, rather than what happens to it at the end of its life. This is true regardless of the material, but in terms of paper, we need to factor in how much co2 it takes to produce it.
Plastic v Metal
Stainless steel tins and bottles are something of a zero waste style statement. There is no doubt that they look good, and I certainly love my tins, but the process of producing metals like stainless steel and aluminium releases crazy amounts of co2 into the atmosphere. This means that reusables made from metal will need to avoid a lot of waste before they save more resources than it took to produce them.
So, it’s really up to you: option 1 is stainless steel products, which are very high impact to produce, but highly durable, or option 2 – plastic bottles and containers, which are more environmentally-friendly to produce, but tend to wear out more quickly, so that you may end up using more of them in the end. This is essentially a judgement call, based on your personal routines and how much waste you expect to avoid by using your reusable bottle and containers.
Single-use cups v reusable cups
Several studies have looked into how many times a reusable cup needs to be used before it saves more resources than it took to produce. As they are carried out by academics, there is no simple answer – it depends on which type of reusable cup you are using, which type of single-use cup you are trying avoid, and which environmental impact you are considering – but it seems to range from 5-16 times. So, if you would otherwise expect to use at least 17 single-use cups, consider investing in a reusable one. For top marks, see if you can pick one up in a charity shop.
Glass jars v plastic packaging
The jury appears to be out on this one. Glass tends to lose points compared to plastic because of the high carbon emissions involved in manufacturing and transporting it (think of how much more glass weighs) but can redeem itself by being more efficient to recycle than certain types of plastic.
So, I guess if you can reuse or refill jars, that’s your best option. Otherwise, there’s no clear justification for always choosing glass jars over plastic.
Plastic bags v cotton bags
Its a bit of a mystery why cotton has gained a reputation for being an environmentally friendly material. It takes 20,000 litres of water to make 1kg of cotton, and much of it is sourced from countries where water is extremely scarce. Worldwide, cotton production causes pollution and biodiversity loss.
Organic cotton may reduce some of these impacts, but it will always be a resource intensive material to produce. The UK government’s research shows that cotton bags have 10 times more global warming potential than any other bag they studied, and it needs to be used 173 times before it becomes more environmentally friendly than a single use plastic bag.
So, don’t buy more new cotton products than you need – there is no reason why reusable bags need to be made from cotton. Get your clothes second hand. And please don’t use new cotton fabric as gift wrapping – its hard to imagine a more wasteful way to wrap presents.
So, are you saying we should use plastic? What about the turtles? Plastic never biodegrades……
Agreed. We should definitely be cutting out the single-use plastics. Just let’s not try to solve the problem of ocean pollution by switching to materials that contribute to global warming, pollution and water scarcity. It doesn’t make sense to focus on just one material, and just one stage of a product’s life cycle.
Also, studies show that plastic waste in the oceans mostly comes from things like littering, fishing/shipping activity, and waste that escapes from poorly managed landfills into rivers. Only 0.28% of ocean plastic comes from European rivers, so if you are careful to put plastic waste in the recycling and aren’t in the habit of chucking rubbish into waterways, plastics are less of an ocean pollution issue and more of a waste issue.* To reduce our impacts on the environment, we need to consider the overall impacts of everything we consume, or we risk shifting from one problem to another.
Isn’t this making things more complicated? Won’t it confuse people who are trying to do the right thing?
What makes life complicated is searching around trying to substitute plastics for other materials. Reducing your environmental impact is fairly straightforward – avoid anything that is designed to be used for a short time, then thrown away, and reduce your consumption of all stuff wherever you can. Making changes that exchange one environmental problem for another just wastes time and energy that could be used for actions that actually do make a difference, and it’s misleading to claim otherwise.
But plastic is awful! It’s made from a non-renewable resource, and it can’t be recycled forever.
I know, but good luck with finding that 100% recyclable, 100% renewable material that has no harmful effects on the natural world.
You can find your nearest UK packaging-free shop here.
* Since I posted this, I’ve had a number of people get in touch to say that since China used to import plastic waste from around the world, some of the plastics in the ocean today could still have originated in countries like the UK. To be clear: China stopped importing plastic waste at the beginning of 2018. This is not a good reason to avoid all plastic. Yes, let’s cut out single-use plastics like straws, bags, bottles, and toothbrushes. Get involved in beach clean ups. Support organisations that are dealing with the problem of ocean pollution. But it would be a mistake to simply swap plastics for materials like paper, metal and cotton without first considering how these might impact other parts of the natural world, such as the habitats of animals that live on land.
If you have a spare 18 minutes, I totally recommend this TED talk by Leyla Acaroglu, Paper beats plastic? How to rethink environmental folklore.
Note: I’m still getting feedback from people concerned that this post in some way ignores the problems associated with plastic use. Please put your pitchforks down, I agree with you 100% about the need to reduce the use of plastic and prevent plastic litter from getting into the sea. However, consider that two things can be true at the same time:
- There are many serious environmental problems associated with the use of plastic.
- There are many serious environmental problems associated with alternatives to plastic.
Therefore perhaps we should find a way of addressing these issues which don’t simply swap one problem for another.
So while it’s always great to get feedback, if you are an anti-plastic activist preparing to leave a comment explaining that plastic doesn’t biodegrade, is harmful to sea creatures, is made from fossil fuels, or that it can’t be recycled forever, allow me to reassure you that this is all quite well known, and is not disputed in this post.