The battle of the bag: paper or plastic?

By 05 Mar 2018

To underline the implications of using paper or plastics for packaging, Bhavika Shah lists its pros and cons, for responsible use and disposal of the materials for packaging

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The age-old debate: paper or plastic? Many instinctive responses would err on the side of the paper. However, both these materials have their own sets of pros and cons. The key, in cases like this, is not to determine what the greater evil is, rather to recycle that evil such that it can be re-purposed and reused. 
 
With the steady rise of environmental packaging and consciousness, this is a fairly relevant debate. However, it goes way beyond just the materials, and we must take into consideration the environmental impacts of production, distribution and disposal as well. What is most surprising is that the implications of these products depend greatly on the way they are disposed of. If they are not disposed of correctly, they become non-degradable and all the more harmful to the environment. Here is a closer look at our go-to materials to use for packaging design, and how we can keep their environmental effects at a minimum. 

Paper

We have all seen those brown, craft paper bags when you buy something at a store or supermarket. Unless they are made using recycled paper, these ‘organic’ brown bags are not as green as they seem. Paper definitely has a great set of pros, but a long list of cons as well. Here is a closer look at the seemingly greener option, paper.

Pros:
Degradable: Probably the best quality about paper is that it is easily degradable. If disposed properly, paper can degrade with minimum threat to the environment. This works best with minimally treated paper and soy-based inks.

Easily recyclable: Paper is easily recyclable compared to plastic and has a higher recycling rate. Scrap paper can be used to create moulded pulp packaging. Paper can also be re-purposed to create nutrient-rich compost.

Renewable resource: Fortunately or unfortunately, paper is made from a renewable energy resource, namely trees. In an ideal world, we would be planting trees at the same rate we are cutting them down. This is not an option for non-renewable sources of energy such as petroleum and fossil fuels.

Cons
Not easily reusable: Paper bags and packaging are quite delicate compared to plastic. It is quite unfortunate to be stuck out in the rain with a paper bag. Paper is definitely not as durable as plastic either, it can tear easily and crinkle as it gets older.

More pollution to create paper: Producing paper emits 70% more air pollution than plastic. It also produces 80% more greenhouse gases and 50 times more water pollutants than plastic. It also takes up about four times as much energy to produce as opposed to plastic.

Recycling can be inefficient: Recycling paper can be surprisingly counter-productive as it consumes more fuel than it does to create a new paper bag. It takes about 91% more energy to recycle paper than it would the same amount of plastic.

Heavier and higher in volume: Two thousand plastic bags weigh 30 pounds, whereas two thousand paper bags weigh 280 pounds. Paper, by sheer volume, generates about 80% more solid waste. Being heavier, it’s not as easily distributable either, increasing its carbon footprint.

Degrading paper: Yes, paper is degradable and takes a fraction of the time it does for plastic. However, degrading paper produces methane which is very harmful to the environment and a top cause of pollution.

 
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Plastic

Plastic is a common evil with a very bad reputation. Most of us will be ever ready to list out its many evils. However, it has a surprising set of pros as well.

Pros:
Reusable and durable: Plastic’s biggest pro is that it is a sturdy material that is reusable and durable. It doesn’t get damaged if it gets wet and can virtually live for years without getting spoiled.

Less weight and volume: Plastic has lesser weight and volume and is easily transportable because of its lightness, decreasing its carbon footprint.

Less energy to recycle and produce: As compared to paper, plastic takes up far lesser energy to produce and recycle. Producing paper is incredibly resource-dependent. Plastic can also be remolded to create other products, making recycling more viable.

Plastic sequesters its carbon forever: Paper produces methane upon degrading, which is terrible for the planet. Plastic on the other hand, emits no such dangerous gases and sequesters its carbon forever.

Variety of uses: Plastic is a sturdy material with a variety of uses. From packaging to cutlery to septic tanks, plastic does not run out of uses.

Cons:
Takes over 1000 years to fully decompose: No exaggeration, it takes this long for plastic to fully decompose. And while it’s decomposing, it is littering the planet and wreaking havoc on wildlife and marine animals

Very little plastic is ever recycled: Although it takes less fuel to recycle plastic, only 1-3% of plastic is ever recycled.

Made of non-renewable resources: Most of the plastics are made of polyethylene, which is made from petroleum, a non-renewable resource. This is the largest danger of producing plastic.

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So in conclusion, which is better – paper or plastic? The simple answer is neither and both. Both are great materials to work with if we promote recycling and repurposing. Before jumping in defence of paper, ask yourself: how much paper do you really recycle?
 
There should be greater awareness on how to dispose these materials efficiently, as that makes all the difference. Paper, when thrown in landfills, takes almost as long as plastic to degrade.
 
Instead, paper can be composted to create nutrient-rich compost or repurposed to make recycled paper. 
 
In the future, the design should include an option to dispose the packaging. For example, seed packaging can come with a tiny bit of compost, such that the seeds can be planted and the paper packet they come in can be composted. Plastic, on the other hand, can be recycled and remoulded into new products by the manufacturers themselves. Plastic, when recycled, can truly lessen its environmental impact and can be a key material to manufacture a variety of products. 
 
Due to these new understandings, we are seeing a steady rise in environment-friendly packaging. Designers and printers are becoming more and more conscious on the impact of their chosen materials and their effects on the environment. We do see a future with paper and plastic, but in a far more sustainable manner, where recycled materials will become the need of the hour. 
 
It is also important to consider alternative materials for packaging design. Packing shoes in canvas or burlap instead of cardboard boxes are one example. Glass bottles and mason jars can also be repurposed and reused. Packaging should be approached as sustainably as possible and can be made even more interesting through interactive, environmental design. 
 
Finally, what is the short and sweet answer when someone asks, paper bag or plastic bag? It is simple; bring your own recyclable, reusable bag! 
 

bhavika
Bhavika Shah is the founder of Mumbai-based design house Beyondesign. After completing her Masters from Georgia, she conceptualised Beyondesign in 2006 and quickly moved on to establish her dynamic all-girls team.

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