Paper and plastic bags are equally destructive
Leticia Labre
This week, New York rolled out its plastic bag ban and the positive reaction to it was encouraging. As a former climate change negotiator for the Philippines who now lives in New York, and a parent of two who encourages her children to see Mother Nature as their second mom, to these environmentally conscious urbanites I say: let’s ban paper bags too.
Research by the UK Environment Agency has found that paper bag production requires more raw materials and energy, and produces more waste than plastic bag production. Specifically, some 14 billion trees are cut down annually for paper packaging, whereas plastic ones are by-products of oil refining.
It takes four times more electricity to produce a paper than a plastic carrier. Additionally, paper bag production emits 70 per cent more air and 50 per cent more water pollutants than its plastic counterpart.
A paper bag has to be used at least three times to decrease its impact on the environment to match that of a plastic bag used just once.
But don’t go running back to your plastic bag just yet. New York joined the long line of jurisdictions that have banned them — around 67 countries and counting, with Bangladesh being the first one in 2002 — for a reason.
Many of us have seen shocking photos of rivers filled with plastic garbage, or animals that have died from ingesting them. Globally, we produce around 300 million tons of plastic waste per year, which the UN has helpfully equated to the weight of the entire human population.
Only a small part of this is recycled or incinerated. Almost 80 per cent is simply piling up around us, as litter in our streets, in garbage dumps, and in our waters. Depending on the type of product, plastic takes up to 600 years to decompose, all the while contaminating the water we drink and food we eat. The UN estimates that by 2050, we could have more plastic than fish in our oceans and seas.
But take heart, because there is an alternative: the reusable tote. Many New Yorkers already have the habit of keeping them handy in our cars, handbags or backpacks and offices for that surprise trip to the grocery.
The Environment Agency study estimated that synthetic reusable bags should be used up to 30 times to match the environmental impact of a grocery plastic bag used once, and canvas sacks at least 330 times. The idea is to go as natural as possible and to use them for years.
Personally I’ve found the nascent tote fashion trend to be a happy by-product of environmental consciousness. These carriers have become billboards of entertaining memes and are a great way of identifying one’s tribe.
My favourite is a fabric one from Four Sigmatic, a mushroom-based drinks company, which has a zippered close and says “On ‘shrooms, the legal kind”. I’ve also started using my New Yorker canvas carryall as my daily handbag and was amused to find myself behaving more solicitously to strangers carrying them too.
During the spring and summer, I sport baskets from the Philippines, which I love for their high fashion impact and low carbon footprint, since they are made from natural materials and completely hand-woven by women artisans.
I also have one more pick which is synthetic but folds so small that it fits in tiny evening purses.
By far the best part of these environmentally conscious habits is the feel-good factor that comes with experiencing a connection to community and planet, and knowing that we have done our part in caring for the planet we live on.