Our in-house environmental expert, Priyadharshini poses the million dollar question – should we recycle paper or plastic? She also suggests a better alternative for both! The other day, I dropped in at a café to have a cup of coffee. As I sipped my hot coffee, my eyes caught to a quote “Avoid plastics, Use paper bags”.
Most of us might have come across such environmental awareness quotes in public places, but I wondered have we ever given a second thought what lies behind that sentence?
In today’s modern world, the importance of environment is sought but uncared for. We blindly follow the alternatives for lesser impact on the environment. One such example is the usage of paper bags for plastic bags. Usage of plastic (polythene) carry bags has become inevitable. So paper bags have been suggested as an alternative. The word “paper” suggests that the paper bag is easily recyclable and that it is not as bad as plastic since it is biodegradable.
However, most paper cups and bags are coated with a plastic resin (i.e., polyethylene) for durability and convenience, therefore making both their composting and recycling difficult and raising the specter of carcinogenic chemical leaching. Depending on the forestry practices (and whether they are sustainably produced or not) paper bag production results in loss of trees, ecological degradation and a reduction in the planet’s carbon absorption capacity. In our world of shrinking forests and growing landfill, continued use of the paper bag is both dangerous and unsustainable.
When we compare the complete lifecycle analysis of paper or plastic bag, that is the ‘cradle to grave’ process which includes the impacts caused by a product right from its raw material extraction to its disposal, then we can clearly say which one is more sustainable. The sustainability of paper and plastic can be compared over their lifecycle, covering both energy and water footprints.
Bio-plastic fruit containers
Paper is produced from either tree barks or recycled paper. The production of paper consumes lots of water and beaching chemicals which produce toxic effluents harmful to the environment. On the other hand, the transportation of paper from the industry to consumer also consumes lots of fuel, creating a carbon footprint. In terms of recycling, paper can be only recycled 2-3 times due to its inflexibility and strength, and it again requires large amount of water for the process. Paper production consumes 935 times more water compared to plastic.
On the contrary, plastic is derived from crude oil residues and their carbon footprint for both the production and transportation is much lesser when compared to paper. The recycling of plastic is flexible and it can be done 5-10 times. So, in this background, we can now decide between paper and plastic based on our convenience and the recyclable capacity before its final disposal. Thankfully, advanced technology has brought in latest innovation which presents us a clever way out of the present problem.
Bio-plastics are derived from corn, sugarcane and other renewable biomass resources. These biodegradable thermoplastic material made from Polylactic Acid polymer are very much similar to the regular Polythene material. Corn-based plastic bags in particular have been gaining popularity in the West. Due to their natural origin and biodegradability characteristics, Bio-plastics can be converted into high-quality compost. Admittedly, there is much lesser carbon footprint from reusable Bio-plastic bags during their production and also from rinsing in hot water.
In India, are few companies have begun commercial production of Bio-plastics. Earthsoul India and Ravi Industries in Maharashtra, Harita NTI Ltd and Biotec Bags in Tamilnadu have been the pioneers in Bio-plastics. Now let’s hope consumer goods companies come forward to choose Bio-plastics and considerably reduce their carbon footprint and make their products more sustainable.
Text – Priyadharshini.B
- Factfile –