Two articles; pro & con…
Save the planet: Choose plastic shopping bags
There’s a worldwide movement to get rid of plastic shopping bags and replace them with paper or reusable cotton tote bags. The claimed reason is to combat litter and to save the planet, but ironically, the environmental impact of both paper and cotton bags is far worse than that of ordinary plastic bags.
Ever since their introduction, the resistance against plastic bags was motivated in part by environmental concerns. Today, paper bags are being offered as alternatives to plastic by many retailers, and “eco-friendly” canvas bags are wicked trendy as the must-have accessory for the modern environmentally conscious shopper.
Challenging the case for plastics over paper
For anyone wanting to do their bit against climate change, consuming paper products is a very simple and effective way. After all, the more paper we use, the more trees have to be planted, the more carbon in the atmosphere gets prevented from doing global warming harm. Unless plastics are 100% recycled worldwide, a virtual impossibility, they will continue to harm the planet.
Although I would agree with most aspects in Ivo Vegter’s article in Daily Maverick on 14 August, some points need challenging.
First, and perhaps the most important, is that the carbon in plastic comes from coal and oil and adds to the above ground carbon burden of the planet, whereas paper and cotton use and remove above ground carbon, in these cases the carbon from the atmosphere – thus also helping to alleviate the effects of anthropogenic greenhouse gases. Life Cycle Analyses do not often taken into account the source of the carbon, if they deal with it at all. These facts alone should obviate the case for plastic bags, especially given the attention that plastic pollution of the oceans is currently receiving.
Both carbon and plastic can and are recycled. The concern is that which is NOT recycled – which then enters land fills, rivers, and ultimately the oceans. For plastic this quantity is vast and is greatly aggravated by the fact that plastic takes over 400+ years to decompose. Unlike paper and cotton, during recent human life spans, very little plastic actually decomposes to its constituents. What happens is that it usually breaks down into micro particles that get taken in by all animal life especially marine life. Apart from the little that is burned – into highly carcinogenic compounds – all the plastic ever made is still around somewhere. Paper and cotton products decompose quickly – in a matter of weeks to one or two years, and simply return their carbon whence it came not adding to the carbon burden of the planet, as plastics do. So for as long as paper and cotton products exist their carbon is withheld from contributing to greenhouse gas accumulation.