[OPINION] Paper vs plastic: The right choice might not be what you think

When the husband and I got engaged, family and friends took turns inviting us out to celebrate. One uncle brought us out on Manila Bay for the day. Pulling out of the bay was unforgettable, but sadly for the wrong reason. It was so chockfull of plastic bags that it was as if we were sailing in a landfill. So much for romance and celebration.

So when Makati City outlawed plastic bags, the tree-hugger in me was happy. But that was short-lived. Many times, I was caught flat-footed without my reusable bags and had to carry heavy groceries home in thin brown paper bags. You know which brown paper bags I’m talking about – the ones that don’t even have handles so you have to hug them to carry them. They’re thin, so buying even just a few canned goods and household cleaners could result in having multiple bags to carry. They’re inconvenient too. God forbid that you should have any other errands around the mall while you’re balancing those bags. 

Each time I suffered the indignity of having to lug brown paper bags, I remembered former colleagues in the climate change space citing research about plastic bags being more environmentally-friendly than paper ones. Each time I recalled, I fumed at the Makati City Hall officials who were rolling out misguided policy, and at the grocery owners too, who couldn’t be bothered to think of their customers. I resolved to unearth the research as soon as I had a minute to settle my personal paper versus plastic debate. Of course I never found the time to do so. Until now.

So it turns out that plastic bags ARE better for the environment than paper ones, in a manner of speaking. 

One of the more widely-cited studies on this topic is by the UK Environment Agency, published in 2011. The study looked at the environmental impact of each type of bag as they were produced, used, and disposed of. It found that plastic bag production required less raw material and energy, and produced less waste than paper bag production. 

To put it more starkly, some 14 billion trees are cut down annually for paper bag production. Plastic bags, on the other hand, are a by-product of oil refining. It takes 4 times more electricity to produce a paper bag compared to a plastic bag. On top of that, paper bag production emits 70% more air and 50% more water pollutants than plastic bag production.

A paper bag would have to be used at least 3 times to decrease its impact on the environment to match that of a plastic bag used just once. The study also took into consideration that many of us actually reuse our plastic bags as trash bin liners. Or if you were my grandmother, you would even save those plastic bags just for the love of it, it seemed. 

In such cases, a paper bag would have to be used at least 7 times to decrease its environmental impact to match that of a plastic bag used twice. Given that the quality of our supermarket paper bags is so poor that they can’t be reused, our switch from plastic to paper could actually be seen as more damaging to the environment.

One declared limitation of the Environment Agency study was that it assumed all bags would be properly disposed of and recycled, and didn’t consider litter.  But therein lies the problem with plastic bags – they’ve become synonymous with litter. 

The seminal study by Jambeck et al found that in 2010, at least 8 million metric tons of plastic waste ended up in our waterways and oceans. More galling, the study identified the Philippines as the third worst plastic polluter in the world, responsible for around a half million metric tons of plastic trash in the sea!  How do I even begin to offer a visual of this? One online graphic helpfully equated half a million metric tons of plastic trash to 100 million elephants. Stay with me here. Imagine that we all turned into elephants. That’s how much plastic trash we Filipinos send to our oceans every year – the equivalent of our national population super-sized to elephant dimensions!

So it seems that in the paper versus plastic debate, both types of bags are downright evil for the environment.  On the bright side, the studies did offer a third, more environmentally-friendly option: reusable bags. Going a step further, the Environment Agency study specifically noted that reusable polyethylene and polypropylene bags have a much lower impact on the environment than cotton bags. While synthetic reusable bags have to be used between 10 to 30 times to decrease their environmental impact to match that of an ordinary supermarket plastic bag used once, a cotton bag would have to be reused at least 330 times to achieve the same.  This is not to say that you shouldn't use cotton bags. Rather, reuse them as much as possible!

Seeing uncollected trash and waterways filled with garbage is so commonplace in the Philippines that I had become callous to it. I needed numbers to slap me into consciousness. Now incrementally wiser about the paper versus plastic debate, I am ashamed for having mentally assailed public officials (but not grocery owners, whose best contribution to this societal problem is to provide brown paper bags so awful that they act as perverse incentives for reusable bags). Even better, my more nuanced understanding has given me resolve. Nowadays, my reusable bags have a permanent place in my handbag, ever ready for use, and I hope, in yours too! – Rappler.com 

Based in New York, Leticia Labre is a writing enthusiast using this space as a good excuse to embark on some adventures, gain wisdom, and make friends along the wayFollow her on Twitter: @beingleticia.