Paper or plastic?

Written by mfrey


Not only has the paper vs. plastic argument been flipped upside down since when I was a kid (wasn’t I saving trees by asking for plastic?), new alternatives are available these days, too. Well, sort of…

In recent years I’ve seen several examples of novel packaging in the marketplace, ranging from degradable plastic bags to starch-based packing peanuts to Amazon’s “frustration-free” packaging.

These are all steps in the right direction, but there are some important points to make about these different types of packaging.

First, degradable is not the same as biodegradable, or compostable. I was delighted when I received my first degradable plastic bag at the corner shop last year in England. It breaks down in 18 months — great!

Degradable plastics are manufactured with special additives that allow them to break down in a predictable way. This can be either from contact with air or moisture, or from exposure to sunlight, depending on the additive. But I naively assumed when I got my degradable plastic bag that it was made from a natural product. It turns out it is still made from petroleum.

Bioplastics made from natural sources do exist. You may have already seen forks and plastic cups made from these materials. These are further classified as biodegradable or compostable, depending on the conditions and time required for them to break down naturally.

Two specific examples of bioplastics from my day-to-day life come to mind. Recently the city of San Francisco enacted legislation requiring supermarkets to use compostable plastic carrier bags or no plastic bags at all. And my personal favorite (except at 3AM) are the chlorine-free, natural, and biodegradable ingredients in my son Jack’s nappies.

Don’t expect bioplastics to be the norm overnight, but do keep an eye on what packaging claims really mean when you see them. Maybe the next time you opt for plastic you won’t have to feel so bad.

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  1. Bill

    Talk about backwards; Here in Ottawa, Canada our city council just banned biodegradable plastic bags, claiming that if they were to be inadvertently taken by the recycling program, it could make quite a lot of plastic un-usable. It seems to me that the city has the ban backwards; isn’t the point of recycling really only to reduce the amount of environmentally un-friendly plastic going to landfill? It was nearly 10 years ago the first time I was in europe, where they actually charge a fee per plastic bag you use in order to encourage use of your own reusable bags. I would gladly see a similar program implemented in my area

  2. Todd

    Mark, We’re about to have a baby, too, and we’re really excited about using gDiapers. Not only are they plastic-free and compostable (you can actually flush them), but they also use an insert system so that you only throw away the messy bit so there’s less overall waste. Then you toss the outer cloth diaper in the wash. It really seems like the best of both (cloth/disposable) worlds.
    On the bag front, we really do need to implement a system whereby people will be encouraged to use, or reuse, their own bags (or discouraged to do otherwise). They can be used many, many times, but most of the time, they’re just used once and, at best, recycled. What a waste! The nickel-a-bag incentive most grocery stores employ for bringing in your own bags doesn’t seem to be enough. People seem to respond much more to having to PAY a nickel to get a new bag. As Bill mentioned, that’s how it’s often done in Europe, and I really think they need to implement that method in the U.S. The free bag mentality in this country is disgusting.

  3. Alex Censor

    To me this is missing the core point, since the lead in to this was “paper or plastic?” and as anyone who’s half seriously looked into it knows, both are environmentaly, econmomically, and ethically seriously flawed with significant impacts.
    They are also symbolically important as they are a defacto everyday manifestation of the throw-away mentality.
    As Todd said “People seem to respond much more to having to PAY a nickel to get a new bag. ”
    He’s dead right. There is plenty of academic and real world evidence to support that. As illogical as it seems, it’s dramatically true.
    Here’s what I and a few others did in our local 8000 member large food coop in Ashland Oregon. We encouraged the management to put in a policy of charging 10-cents for every checkout disposable bag, plastic or paper.
    After some hesitation, the management got throughly behind the proposal and accepted it as an experiment to be tried.
    The fear was that (a) customers would argue and complain at checkout slowing down lines (b) there would be a loss of customers disgruntalled about the policy.
    Here’s what happenend. The percent of shoppers before the policy was relatively high. About 30% brought there owen reusable bags to the checkout line or accepted a used bag or carton.
    After the policy the percent of customers using the new, now-ten-cents, bags is about 10% or less. Along with the 10-cents policy the prices on reusable bags was dropped down to the coops actual cost plus a small margin The policy started about a year ago, and the effect was immeadiate.
    And complaints are virtually non-existant.
    Complements and appreciation for the policy is common.
    Admittedly, Ashland is populated by a demographic more open to such things, but the interesting thing is that “pay for the bag” policy isn’t working, really, because people would hate to spend the dime.
    It’s more of a “reminder” that “hey, these things really aren’t ‘free.’
    It is a myth that you can’t do this in the USA, that “customers wouldn’t stand for it.”
    Ikea about a year ago started charging a just a nickle for the disposable plastic bags they used to give out free. I don’t know how much that has increased shoppers bringing their OWN bags (which is really the point) but their customer service rep I spoke to a year ago said they got very few complaints.
    In preparation for trying to get out town to pass a ordinance requiring that all disposable bags given out in stores must be charged for I have spoke to a few merchants to see how ameniable they would be to it (if too many show up at the council opposing it it would be DOA):
    Reactions are mixed. A few are enthused, some are mildly open to it, a few seem very reluctant to take on what they see as a bother and an unnecessary change in they way they do business.
    If you want to try to “sell” the charge-for-your-bags idea to any merchant you have two things in your favor:
    # Large merchants like supermarkets spend a fortune on disposable bags.
    # You can, if you contact me or do your homework, give them plenty of real world evidence that,if done right, their customers will not enmass freak out and riot or shop the competition.

  4. Mark Frey

    I for one would be all for some sort of labeling for bioplastics, much in the same way that there are the #1-7 oil derived plastics. This would help in terms of sorting issues since, as I understand it, on top of being biodegradable / compostable, bioplastics are recyclable as well (assuming that they are thermoplastics, at least).
    As far as fees for bags go, I am all for that as well. I have seen both cases of stores charging for bags and stores not offering disposable bags at all. I noticed myself and other customers were more likely to turn down a bag, or to use a reusable bag (thanks to our CEO Erik for the little Grist Chico bag, the most recent addition to my collection).

  5. Mark Frey

    Congrats Todd!!
    While I don’t want to make this into a diaper thread (maybe another time?), I think that the gDiapers are a perfect example of rethinking materials / packaging in general.
    You’re quite right about how the (dis)incentives on supplying your own bags, too. I for one don’t ever recall bringing in a bag so save a tiny bit, but I started to think of it all very differently the first time I was asked to pay for a bag.

  6. Mark Frey

    Just one last quick note for today. My local Ikea started selling their bags a year or two ago, but has since stopped selling disposable bags altogether. I’m not sure whether this was driven by a local ordinance, complaints, PR, or anything else, but I am now the owner of a few reusable blue Ikea bags, too.

  7. beth

    What I’m curious about are the trade-offs between paper and plastic – IF we were fully integrated into a recycling culture. In other words, which is more costly (in the full sense of the word, with a cradle to cradle kind of perspective) to recycle – paper or plastic? Anybody have an idea…?

  8. Alex Censor

    I know this isn’t what you wanted to ask/hear:
    I don’t have the details in front of me but when I last looked at the sort of info you ask for two things were clear:
    1) Only a tiny fraction of either plastic or paper disposable bags get recycled.
    2) Even with full recycling the environmental costs are high, and the inefficiencies in the recycling(energy costs for the transportation and the processing of materials, etc) so it’s not a great solution.
    3) The answer to “Paper or Plastic” is still overwhelmingly “Neither, use reusable bags, as the whole world did before about 1950, if you’re serious about caring about the results.”

  9. Mark Frey

    You can find a detailed life cycle assessment comparing paper and plastic bags here. It takes into account recycling rates from 0 to 100%, and my understanding is that recycling rates are very, very low for both of these.
    A shortcoming / difficulty with this sort of comparison is that you are forced into a grey area where you need to make value judgements on what is more important to you / how to compare very different things like air pollution to the depletion of non-renewable resources (if you want to compare items using a single value), where you draw the system boundaries, and even which environmental effects are going to be considered, etc.

  10. Phil

    Paper or Plastic? It’s how you get there that matters. Moving 1-2 ton of steel for 30-60 lbs of groceries is more than a bit misguided. I take reusable canvas bags in a bicycle trailer.
    I do agree about fees, though. No one I knew when I lived in Germany objected to them, and the idea of a “free” grocery bag was totally alien.

  11. Gene Meade

    A couple years ago I got out my almost anticque electic portable Singer sewing machine (in a wooden case) and sewed together a couple heavy cloth shopping bags with plastic rope handles using brass grommets in the hem. A while after that the food markets started selling cloth bags. I actually get a $.05 credit when using my bag(s) instead of their plastic bags. I;m appalled when I see a cart full to the brim with food in plastic bags. Hello, those bags come from petroleum.

  12. Colby

    I have a problem with many bioplastics. Especially the ones pictured at the top of the article. Not only are bioplastics not recyclable, they really don’t break down very fast.
    At my old job we had those greenware cups. I put some in my compost pile, and a year later they were still there. That is not what I would call compostable.
    Worst of all, the greenware cups are made with NatureWorksPLA, a company that is owned by Cargill Dow LLC. If you aren’t familiar with Cargill, they are known for clearcutting and burning rainforests to grow crops to produce products like these (as well as palm oil).
    The Rainforest Action Network currently has a campaign against Palm Oil at . There is a lot of info there about the “green” company Cargill.
    Whether it’s paper, plastic, or bioplastic, the best choice is none of the above. To make the biggest difference we need to start bringing our own reusable bags, coffee cups, water bottles, etc wherever we go.

  13. Nancy H

    Visit The Biodegradable Products Institute was established to certify products to be biodegreadable and compostable. They currently have about 60 companies that sell bags, cups, plates, etc.

  14. Colby

    Thanks, Nancy. That’s a great site and excellent resource. Looks like NatureWorks/GreenWare isn’t on there.

  15. NewsView

    Biodegradable bags are great but people need to learn some basic sanitation if this is going to be a routine manner of gathering up one’s groceries.
    If, for instance, shoppers don’t separate out their fresh meat bags and toss their fruit and veggies in that same bag a few days later at the farmer’s market, the potential for cross contamination builds over time. Already I saw a piece on the news about how unsanitary these bags may become, and to add to that you have no idea how people are storing them at home or how filthy their homes are to begin with.
    In some respects, I would rather see people bring a modified pillow case

  16. jr

    does anyone know what plastic hems are???