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Plastic vs. Paper Bags: Unpacking the Environmental Impact

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Author : Guangzhou Lefeng Plastic Bags Co.,Ltd
Update time : 2023-09-18 11:31:53
In an era where the global "plastic ban" has taken center stage, plastic bags have earned a reputation as one of the world's most vexing pollutants.  We witness the non-degradable menace they pose to our environment, yet few are aware of their original purpose.

Plastic bags were initially conceived to address a pressing concern – the excessive use of paper bags.  In 1959, Swedish inventor Sten Gustav Thulin set out to create plastic bags as an eco-friendly alternative to the widespread use of paper bags, which had led to rampant deforestation.

Plastic bags offer several advantages over their paper counterparts, such as being lightweight, waterproof, and resistant to tearing.  Consequently, they gained widespread adoption upon their invention and, in fact, proved more reusable compared to paper bags.

The crux of the issue lies in the disposable culture surrounding these bags.  While plastic bags were not initially designed to be disposable, their affordability and convenience have led to their rampant disposal after a single use.  The label "non-degradable" might sound ominous, but it's worth noting that materials like metal and glass are also non-degradable, with glass taking up to 1,000 years to naturally decompose – five times longer than plastic products.

The critical challenge is not to ban these materials outright, but rather to establish effective disposal methods.  Unfortunately, due to inadequate waste management, discarded plastic bags often litter streets and public spaces, resulting in the pervasive problem known as "white pollution."  Incineration contributes to atmospheric pollution, while landfilling contaminates the land.  The ideal solution is recycling, a process that plastic bags can undergo multiple times.

China's lackluster waste sorting practices have compounded the problem.  Carelessly discarded plastic bags end up littering streets and eventually finding their way into oceans and rivers, wreaking havoc on aquatic ecosystems.  According to the United Nations Environment Programme, plastic debris claims the lives of over a million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals annually.

Consequently, China initiated the "plastic limit order" in 2008 to curb plastic bag usage.  Several countries, including Hungary (which completely banned plastic bags in 2012) and Panama (which banned single-use plastic bags in shops in 2018), have joined the global drive to limit plastic bag consumption.

But are paper bags a more environmentally friendly alternative?

When plastic bags gained popularity in the 1960s, they displaced paper bags.  Decades later, in the name of environmental preservation, paper products have attempted to regain their market share from plastic.  The shift has been quite dramatic.

However, numerous studies reveal that paper products struggle to fully replace plastic counterparts.

The primary raw material for paper production is trees, the very reason plastic bags were invented to replace paper.  Globally, annual paper consumption stands at a staggering 320 million tons, necessitating the felling of approximately 1.28 billion trees each year – a concerning return to deforestation reminiscent of the 1950s.  Additionally, the environmental impact of paper pollution is often underestimated, potentially surpassing that of plastic manufacturing.

China, traditionally a papermaking powerhouse, has witnessed the detrimental effects of paper production.  The pulping process, a key stage in paper manufacturing, contributes significantly to pollution.  Currently, most Chinese paper mills employ the alkali process for pulp production, discharging roughly seven tons of pollutant-laden blackwater for every ton of pulp produced.  This heavy pollution has historically accounted for one-fifth of the nation's total industrial wastewater discharge.

In a notable incident in 2019, massive pollutants were uncovered on the outskirts of the Tengger Desert, a 120,000-square-meter area marred by pollution attributed to Mei Li Paper, a subsidiary of China Paper.  Mei Li Paper had recklessly disposed of copious amounts of paper black liquor in the desert, rendering the land barren.

Ultimately, the most effective environmental strategy involves reducing consumption and promoting reuse.  While replacing plastic bags with paper may not be a practical solution, cloth bags are not necessarily the optimal choice either.

In recent years, environmental consciousness has surged, emphasizing the value of pristine landscapes and clean waterways.  China has implemented stringent environmental regulations and waste management systems, drawing inspiration from successful practices in the United States.  By establishing comprehensive regulatory frameworks and enforcing legal measures, there is optimism that plastic recycling will significantly improve in the future.

Plastic bag, hailed as one of the greatest inventions of the 19th century, is not inherently flawed; rather, it is our consumption and disposal practices that warrant scrutiny and reform.

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