Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Why not ban paper bags?

So yesterday Gordon Brown pledged to ban the plastic bag from Britain, and as you'd expect the Independent is very happy. The question I wonder is what they will replace them with? The two options on the table are reusable bags or paper bags (like they already use across much of America).

The problem with the first is that we already have reusable bags. They're called plastic bags. What's more, the assumption that we will all go to the supermarket and remember to take our bags is a bit weak. Sure, for a once a week shop perhaps we will, but what about the times we pop in because we suddenly remember we need something?

As for paper bags, it is worth remembering this. To produce a paper bag takes around five times the BTU (or joules if you're a metric nut) as it does to produce a plastic one. Virgin pulp is more often used than recycled pulp for strength purposes, so most new bags come from newly cut down trees which is... errr... bad for the environment right?

Then of course there is the pollution issue. Have you ever been near a paper mill? It stinks. That's because in order to produce paper products they have to use a vast number of chemcial pollutants that pump untold crap into the air as well as chemcial waste into the water supply (which is then cleaned out of course before we have to drink it). It's estimated that the air and water pollution of paper production vastly outstrips that of plastic production.

Of course, paper bags can be recycled, but then so can plastic bags. The advantage of plastic bag recycling is that you can make new plastic bags from old one. You can't do that with paper because the more you recycle the faster the quality of the paper as well its strength degrades. Buy some recycled toilet roll for someone with hemerroids and ask them to compare it with Andrex if you don't believe me.

What about the energy cost of recycling paper versus plastic? Well a paper bag will require around 1000 times the BTU as plastic bag will to recycle. The energy efficiency cost in recycling paper bags is around 90% more than that of plastic as a result.

"But what about degradability!" I hear you cry. What about it? Paper bags and plastic bags are both degradable. Modern polymers have a lifetime of about 18 months in landfill, and they take up less space than paper bags do. Of course, paper is recycled more than plastic, so this point could be said to be moot.

The long and short of it seems to be this. Plastic bags are less damaging to the environment in total energy and pollution costs than paper ones. They don't require deforestation to make; they don't require increased air and water pollution in their production; their landfill cost is less; and their recycle energy usage is more efficient.

Instead of banning them - which sounds ever so green because they are "man made" and thus seem unnatural to the paper equivalent that comes from the earth - perhaps we should be sending out a stronger message that people either (a) reuse them, or (b) recycle them. Whilst we're at it, why don't we ban paper bags instead, they're the real killers of the planet surely?


Man in a Shed said...

Good post - nice to see some actual analysis done.

I assume this is the equivalent of the pots and pans for Spitfires con used during WWII. They want to make us think something is happening by inflicting pain on everyone.

That's what happens when you leave the socialists in charge.

Rachel Joyce said...

The plastic bags thing is a red herring anyway - Nick Ferrari had a phone in on this and most people who phoned up said they reused them for many purposes (as I do).

The real issue which people are not happy with (mentioned alot on the doorstep) is the excessive packaging which we have to have.
But this government thinks it is a good idea to allow unnecessary packaging, particularly for toys and supermarket items, and then attack the person who was forced to buy a product with packaging with bin charges, tip charges, and now banning a simple thin plastic bag to transport things home - that was going to biodegrade easily anyway!

nought.point.zero said...

Man in a shed: so what was the pots and pans con? Did they not really become spitfires? (apologies for my ignorance, I read about it in Just Willaim books and assumed it was above board)

James Higham said...

Dizzy, you are the blogger above all others who picks up on the small details like this which come to much more when all the pieces are put together.

Will you do the same thing with CP's buying up of MOD sites and now their joint [with Deutsche Bank] schools campaigning packs for teaching children how to persuade and how to take leadership?

Unless someone does soon, it will be too late.

Anonymous said...

I could be wrong but I think you're wrong on deforestation. I thought that the vast majority of paper comes from paper farms which are there specifically to grow trees to cut down for paper, then the land is replanted.

I think the real issue with deforestation is the loss of ancient woodland/rainforests and irresponsible forest clearances in places like the Himalayas which have a knock on effect with regards to flooding in Bangladesh. Then we get the blame for leaving our videos on standby.

I don't see what the big deal is with landfill, stick a golf course or a park on top or something, where's the problem?

Kelshall said...

Just a thought: paper bags ultimately come from trees. Plastic bags, being made of plastic, ultimately come from oil thanks to the magic of polymer cracker.

This 'oil' stuff keeps coming up a lot in environmental discussions. Something about it starting to get expensive/scarce.

Alex said...

The environmental impact in a plastic bag is about the same as driving 50 yards across the supermarket car park. Moral: most people would do more for the planet by going to the supermarket less frequently than by getting rid of plastic bags.

Oh, and they don't have to go to landfill - they can be recycled very efficiently into oils that can be used as refinery feedstock - or used in cars as a replacement for diesel or petrol, although that is probably a bit risky.

Man in a Shed said...

The Con was that the metal was never of a quality that could be used for aviation. The aim was to put the public into a mind set for the war. I think it was Lord Beaverbrook's scheme. The Science museum has an article on it here.

Or here "The episode is not without controversy however‚ with many now believing that Lord Beaverbrook and his team always knew that the aluminium would never be used for fighters‚ and that the whole campaign was simply a propaganda exercise. "

Anonymous said...

If you'd spent any time in Germany you'd see that it is very easy to create a culture where fabric re-usable bags are an everyday part of life. I can also remember as a kid that we had the same culture in this country. Going to the shop with my mother or grandmother always involved reusable fabric bags and/or trolleys. Fabric bags are small enough to be folded and put in a coat pocket for the odd trip to the shops. But more importantly why don't people put a folded plastic bag into their pocket for such trips either?

Virgin pulp is the major constituent mixed in with mill scrap as well as pre and post consumer waste however these days there is a rapidly growing proportion of products made from 100% recycled materials. We are talking about brown paper bags here like the ones that used to be ubiqiotous in this country. The virgin pulp is usually made via the Kraft process (and called Kraft paper) which is a highly efficient process and results in almost all of the chemicals used being recovered and reused either in the pulp mill or for other puroposes (lignin waste is often burned as a power generating source). The sulfur compounds, responsible for the smell, have little further use and are usually burned at regular intervals. Kraft paper also doesn't require bleaching or excess chemical additives (clays, starches, optical additives) because it is not perceived as high quality paper as opposed to paper for printing even newspaper. All effluents from paper or pulp mills are required by law to go through treatment before release into the environment.

All the wood for virgin pulp comes from sustainable managed forests in Scanadanavia, North America, the Iberian peninsula and in Europe the vast majority of it comes from waste wood produced after it has been used for its primary commerical purpose and secondary cuttings which is wood produced from thining out of mature forests.

It is clear in terms of CO2 that paper production easily out competes plastic bag production. BTU comparison for production is irrelevent because it doesn't take into account the renewable/sustainable fuels sources that pulp and paper mills generate energy from.

plastic bag disadvantages: 1. Plastic bags are made of petrochemicals, a nonrenewable resource. 2. Plastic bags are flimsy and often do not stand up as well as paper or cloth. 3. When disposed of improperly, they are unsightly and represent a hazard to wildlife. 4. Conventional plastic bags are not readily biodegradable under any normal circumstance. 5. Plastic bags can cause unsupervised infants to suffocate.

In addition biodegradable plastics are generally unrecyclable and contaminate other plastic recycling and only delay the release of CO2, the final product, into the atmosphere.

According to DEFRA, there are several problems with plastic recycling, and in particular plastic bags: 1. the high volume to weight ratio of plastic means that the collection and transport of this waste is difficult and expensive 2. there are often high levels of contamination in plastic making the recyclate less usable, especially where food products are involved 3. there is a very wide range of plastics in use and segregation is difficult 4. the market for using recycled plastic is underdeveloped

I used to hear the same uninformed arguments from the green lobby 30 years ago against paper production. However once they understood the process and the paper industry accepted the need to reduce, reuse and recycle chemical constituents the greens then saw the value of the paper industry. The paper industry is virtually the only mass production industry that is sustainable.

dizzy said...

Took less time than I thought it would.

Old BE said...

I think there's a very elegant solution out there: for the times we don't remember to take a bag for the emergency loaf or pint of milk, we could buy a bag for about 10p.

Anonymous said...

I must be a sad bastard! I'm so excited about the prospect of Darling resigning and plunging this utterly inept government into paroxysms of failure. Sadly I think it won't happen because he has no principles and, for this bunch of nazis, party comes before country.

Man in a Shed said...

Yep Darling won't go. But Gordon will need to ditch him soon - once he's taken the blame for everything.

He should resign now and keep his pride and self respect.

Anonymous said...

The plastic bag problem is solverd by Bunnings a large hardware store in Australia.
They don't give you a bag - you carry whatever you have bought out in either a trolley to your car or in your hands to wherever you are going.
You see they have a near monopoly.

shredding San Antonio said...

I support the use of paper bags than the plastic ones. Paper products decompose within months compared to plastic which takes forever. Aside from that, used paper have a lot of uses like that for crafts.