Now that I think about it, it feel kind of strange that I have not dedicated a full blogpost to this subject. You have probably heard me say it a lot, in my weekly diaries and other posts: I prefer glass, cans and paper over plastic. Always. But why? And is that a fair choice to make? Here’s why paper, glass and cans are more sustainable than plastic.
Is plastic sustainable?
Since I try to live zero waste, no waste is the best waste (duh!). But, there are moment when waste is unavoidable in my situation. I then choose glass, cans or paper. But, people tell me all the time that plastic is more sustainable. There are articles which claim the same thing. And so, therefore it is not weird that people tell me these things. The facts are there, and I am not saying at all that these are not true. They are true, as a matter of fact. But here’s why paper, glass and cans are still more sustainable than plastic.
These articles don’t take into account every aspect of pollution. It’s mostly some simple formula about which production proces produces the most carbon emissions and so therefore is the worst option. The same goes for water use, material use or the fact that you’d have to cut down trees to produce for example paper. It is all true. To produce plastic or to produce, cans, glass or paper, plastic always wins. You’ll have the least amount of carbon emissions, water use and material use.
Does than mean that plastic is less polluting?
As I said, they mostly take into account production. And so yes, plastic wins there. But it all stops there. There are so many things that are not taken into account when it comes to plastics. It all stops at production. Can we measure the amounts of animals chocked on a plastic bag? No. Can we measure the impact of the plastic soup on the ecosystem there? Barely. So yes, you can calculate how much carbon emissions it takes to produce a plastic bag, but it is ridiculous to stop there because the problem only starts there.
Yes, plastic bags can be reused more than paper bags, but then what? A paper bag is something the consumer can work with. You can use it to wrap gifts, write on, compost it, recycle it. In other words: the customer can take action on this waste. With a plastic bag you can’t do anything when it breaks. You can’t use it as a gift wrap, use it as a note, you can’t even recycle it. And so, then what?
Right, it goes to landfill. Or we burn it. The funny part is that when people measure the environmental impact of plastics, it is considered sustainable because of the fact that it gets burned. Because then it will produce more energy than a paper bag will. What they don’t take into account is the air pollution, since you’re burning a synthetic material.
Made out of oil
Speaking of that, plastic is made out of oil. So of course it will produce more energy. But shouldn’t we switch to renewable energy instead of burning our trash which nobody knows how to deal with and then see that as a win? Besides that, again, we make plastic out of oil. And we all know one thing for sure, oil should stay in the ground.
And somehow, the fact that we make plastic out of oil is also not considered. Oil somehow is a natural resource which some people can ‘own’ when they buy the land that’s in. They just take ownership of that natural resource, even though it belongs to all of us. It makes no sense. Shell basically got so rich because they felt like they owned all the oil the the world and started polluting.
Oil production is unsustainable. However, we don’t take that into account when we talk about paper vs. plastic. The natural disasters are not considered, even though they destroy whole ecosystems. But the fact that deforestation happens due to paper production, is taken into account. I think deforestation is wrong too, sure. But the biggest cxntributer to deforestation is animal agriculture, then palm oil. Deforestation for paper use makes up only small percentage of the total amount, since most paper in the Netherlands has a quality mark (like FSC). So quit eating meat, I would say.
And sure, that small amount of deforestation due to paper use is awful. It should not contribute at all, but with paper there are sustainable choices to make. Recycled paper (which can be made out of an actual 100% recycled material), FCS is a better choice, paper made from stone even. Have you ever heard of recycled oil? No? Me neither. Recycled plastic is also a misleading phrase, because most of the time only a few percent is made out of recycled plastic and the other part is just made again out of oil.
And don’t thing that when it says recycled plastic that it used to be a plastic bag. A plastic bag can maybe, just maybe, become a straw after recycling. I suggest you’d dive into the rules for plastic production. It basically comes down to the disappointing message that about 1% can be recycled, if I look at my own region here in Enschede. So to make a plastic bag out of recycled material you’d need a lot of thick plastic, since plastic downcycles. It’s worth less each time after recycling and they it goes to landfill.
All in all
So, that’s a whole lot, right? I just happen to have a strong opinion on this matter haha! All these arguments go for cans and glass as well. Glass and cans take even more energy to produce, since they’re heavier and of better quality than plastics. But I think we can take the energy challenge, with renewable energy. The waste challenge we have with plastics is clearly something we can’t take.
Paper, glass and cans are 100% recyclable and that is what’s important to me. With plastic we’d still have a linear economy, so it all ends at landfill. With cans, glass or paper, we don’t. Since it is fully recyclable it makes a circular economy. That’s the whole point here. A circular economy. And so a non-disposable economy.
A cotton bag becomes sustainable after it’s been used for about 100 times.
I’d agree that everybody using a paper bag every day would not be the solution. As I said, if I have to make a choice and there is no waste-free option, I find it better, yes. But it’s not the complete solution. The solution lies in reusable products. A cotton bag, or bamboo cup or a RVS straw. Things that can last us forever ánd are 100% recyclable. And yes, these things take then even more energy to produce, but because of the reuse it will be okay. In the end, it’s a combination of both a non-disposable and circular economy.