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Environmental Impact of Plastic vs. Paper

As consumers become more engaged in the conversation surrounding plastic and the increasingly serious litter problems, especially in areas like Asia, the UK, and elsewhere, it is important that we understand the entire life cycle of all packaging including plastics, paper, cardboard, etc. 

According to The Future of Flexible Packaging to 2024 report, there is mounting public pressure on brand owners and retailers to reduce the environmental impact of packaging. Brand owners are responding to these concerns with a mission of not only reducing the amount of food waste, but more importantly, accelerate the move to a sustainable, resource-efficient circular economy

For many, it is believed that paper bags are more environmentally friendly than plastic bags because they are made from a renewable resource, can biodegrade, and are recyclable. However, scientific research shows just the opposite. Plastic bags outperform paper bags environmentally – on manufacturing, on reuse, and on solid waste volume and generation. Paper products take substantial amounts of energy to make, making paper and cardboard the third largest industry use of energy on the planet. In comparison to cardboard, plastic is lighter and more durable and less energy intensive to manufacture.

Conclusions from the 2005 Scottish Report states that “[A] paper bag has a more adverse impact than a plastic bag for most of the environmental issues considered. Areas where paper bags score particularly badly include water consumption, atmospheric acidification (which can have effects on human health, sensitive ecosystems, forest decline and acidification of lakes) and eutrophication of water bodies (which can lead to the growth of algae and depletion of oxygen). Paper bags are anywhere between six to ten times heavier than lightweight plastic carrier bags and, as such, require more transport and its associated costs. They would also take up more room in a landfill if they were not recycled.”

When you consider the entire life cycle of packaging, paper and cardboard represent far greater environmental impact than their plastic equivalents.  A recent ULS report comparing plastic and paper bags concluded that:

  1. Plastic bags generate 39% less greenhouse gas emissions than uncomposted paper bags and 68% less greenhouse gas emissions than composted paper bags. 
  2. Plastic bags consume less than 6% of the water needed to make paper bags. It takes 1,004 gallons of water to produce 1,000 paper bags and 58 gallons of water to produce 1,500 plastic bags.
  3. Plastic grocery bags consume 71% less energy during production than paper bags. Significantly, even though traditional disposable plastic bags are produced from fossil fuels, the total non-renewable energy consumed during their lifecycle is up to 36% less than the non-renewable energy consumed during the lifecycle of paper bags and up to 64% less than that consumed by biodegradable plastic bags.
  4. Using paper bags generates five times more solid waste than using plastic bags.
  5. After four or more uses, reusable plastic bags are superior to all types of disposable bags — paper, polyethylene, and compostable plastic, across all significant environmental indicators.

To learn more about the sustainability of plastic and flexible packaging, visit here

The Hefty® EnergyBag® Program in Cobb County is making “TONS” of progress

In November 2018, Cobb County in Atlanta, Georgia launched a community level program administered through Keep America Beautiful known as the Hefty® EnergyBag® program. As part of Cobb County’s existing waste management infrastructure, the program was a significant step to achieving positive long-term environmental and economic advantages, including fewer plastics ending up in landfills. 

How Does the Program Work?

Participating households place their hard-to-recycle plastics in Hefty® EnergyBag® orange bags. Once full, residents tie the bags and place them in their curbside recycling carts or bins during their regularly-scheduled recycling pick-up.

Participants’ current haulers pick up the tied Hefty® bags along with their regular recycling materials and send them to a local materials recovery facility (MRF) for sorting. The MRF then bales the bags and sends them to a local energy recovery facility, which converts plastics into valuable resources.

Program Benefits

The Hefty® EnergyBag® program provides many environmental and economic benefits, including:

  • The diversion of valuable resources from landfills

  • The conversion of waste into alternative energy, which can be used to power businesses, cars and homes

  • Improved efficiency of existing mechanical recycling programs by reducing the amount of hard-to-recycle materials going to materials recovery facilities, ultimately improving the quality of recycled materials such as paper and cardboard

  • Potential cost savings that aid in the decrease of waste management costs

  • The reduction of fossil fuels extracted from the ground

  • Increased consumer engagement and education of resource recovery

The Results

Within 10 months of program launch, more than 20,000 residents expressed interest in participating, involving additional recycling haulers. Within that time, participating residents have diverted more than 33.6 tons of materials that would have otherwise gone to landfill.

Looking Ahead

In late November 2019, Cobb County started phase 2 of the program to engage another 15,000 households, making the program available to new communities with additional haulers throughout Cobb County.

Learn more about the Hefty® EnergyBag® program here.

Find Your Local Flexible Packaging Recycling Location