Plastic Bag vs. Paper Bag in Supermarket Industry

The traditional consumer carrier bags have over the recent past received significant attention as pollution growingly turns into a global problem. Non-biodegradable materials pose an adverse threat to the marine life and are a public perception concern. However, there are numerous other impacts associated with human health, agriculture, fisheries, and tourism (Forster, 2016). Quantification of these impacts has been less accurate and as such a holistic overview of the aggregate effects of packaging materials has not been possible. These realities pose significant challenges to businesses not to mention the devastating impact on the environment and the society in general. On the other hand, the paper may lack some qualities, but it is undoubtedly a competitive alternative because it is produced from renewable feedstock and undergoes natural decomposition. The article compares plastic bags with comparable paper bags with a goal of developing an aggregate cost-impact evaluation. There are numerous advocators contend that plastics materials are more sustainable and cheaper compared to paper, despite the health and environmental footprint of its raw materials.    

The Packaging Industry

There are numerous applications of packaging, ranging from physical protection, the extension of shelf-life, branding and marketing, and convenience. Based on the intended use, myriad of these factors determine packaging design and guarantee it meets market demands. In the global packaging market, plastic is the most typical material, and its use is projected to grow due to the increasing population of the middle class, which demonstrate increased consumption of consumer goods and packaging products.

Plastic Packaging

Plastics are categorized based on biodegradability and material used in the production process. These classes of plastic include bio-based, conventional, bio-degradable, and biodegradable bio-based plastics. The feedstock of traditional plastics sourced from methane gas or crude oil. In the manufacturing process of plastics, the feedstock is refined through a range of steps in a chemical based process to generate plastic resin and other organic compounds.

These molecules are later combined as per the desired attributes to manufacture an assortment of packaging materials. Alternatively, plastics can be classified as per composition and the commonly used polymers, such as polythene variants, polyvinyl chloride, and so forth. In comparison to alternative packaging solutions, plastic packaging has numerous benefits considering its associated durability and lightweight, which are the key to extended product shelf-life and relatively lower GHG emissions. Exclusively, plastic packaging is used for single-use packaging, and its success has contributed to its popularity.            

Paper Packaging

Fiber-based packaging has started to attract a high percentage of usage especially in transport and high-end product packaging. However, concerning the market share, plastics have the largest size, but the rate of use of fibre-based packaging is increasing at a high rate (Juntti, 2015). Whereas still growing, the rate of growth is exceeding lower than the demand for packaging materials. Naturally, fiber-based packaging contributes to environmental pollution, although the rate differs based on the manufacturing process. Electricity and steam are the particular energy forms used for the production of paperboards and pulp. Companies are increasingly relying on biofuels as a sustainable source of energy, considering the use of the residues generated from the process of production of paper and pulp for power generation.

The primary environmental concerns with the products of fiber-based packaging include the incorporation coating and additions that lower recyclability, high water consumption in the virgin process, and discharge of organic effluent into the water sources. Besides, paperboard manufacturing is reported to adopt unsustainable management approaches, which contribute to soil erosion, deforestation, environmental destruction, and wildlife extinction. The virgin process, however, is controlled in highly mechanized plants and does not pose similar problems.                


Rate of Decomposition

After use and subsequent disposal of plastic and paper packaging, the decomposition process, and materials are broken down into insignificantly smaller pieces. The main difference between these two classes of contents is on the length of the decomposition process and the resulting residues. Plastic packaging has a lifespan of nearly five hundred years depending on the nature of the plastic before decomposition. During the period, the synthetic constituents disintegrate into small pieces, which pose a threat to environmental sustainability.

On the other hand, paper materials have a short lifespan and decompose faster than plastic bags. Similarly, paper bags have less adverse effects on wildlife and the ecosystem. The impacts generated by paper bag are further reduced as paper and pulp firms are increasingly using renewable feedstock. The negative externalities connected to plastics include habitat degradation, emission of GHG, and environment and health concerns.       

Carbon Dioxide Emission

Paper bags, according to Sevitz, Brent, &Fourie, (2003, p.67), have lower environmental impact compared with plastic bags. The ratio of environmental impact is 2.5. Furthermore, The Week (2018) established that paper bags have remarkably lower carbon footprint than plastics. They have fifty-nine percent lower potential of GHG emission than recycled plastic bags.

The clear benefit of paper bags is that its production is entirely renewable and hence its environmental impact is significantly lower than its equivalent. The virgin process generates a high quantity of energy than paper, and therefore it is more economical to make electricity from plastic. However, considering it is produced from a fossil-based material, the heat generated from the process emits a high amount of carbon dioxide, which renders it less environmentally appropriate. Plastic is relatively lighter than paper bags and is easy to transport. However, transportation is just a fraction of the general potential of global warming.

Industrial Footprint

By far, plastic is the most prevalent form of marine litter, comprising between sixty to eighty percent of the aggregate waste collected in the ocean. Approximately ten percent of the yearly plastic production end up in the coastal areas and result in nine million tons of debris annually. Although debatable, leakage is relatively higher and a large portion of such wastes are derived from land-based sources, including littering and landfills. The other sources are from marine-based activities, including cruise lines, shipping, and fishing (Ryan, 2015, p.23).

On the other hand, paper materials are less researched because they decompose or breakdown remarkably faster, unlike plastic debris. Plastics at the shore end up in the ocean floats with a large portion of it as ocean sinks. Lower temperatures at the beaches and oceans reduce the decomposition rate. Physical abrasion, including sand grinding and wave action, break the plastic deposits into smaller fragments and microplastics invisible to the naked eye. These pieces are today a commonplace in oceans and marine life. The costs associated with marine litter include cleaning expenses and other indirect and more complex costs, such as the reduction of quality of life and ecosystem deterioration. Besides, other costs include damage to the ecosystem, for example, tourism, food provision, and water purification. It is apparent that marine cause economic and environmental impacts, reducing the benefits derived from coastal and marine resources, which makes it more difficult to quantify.

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Figure 1. Composition of marine debris

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Figure 2. Marine Litter Categories on beaches


The costs of producing paper bags are higher than that of manufacturing plastic bags. More resources are needed in the manufacture of paper than in the production of plastics. The energy and water used in the production of a paper bag is four times more that the amount of energy required in the manufacture of plastic bags. The transportation cost of paper bags is equally higher than those of plastic bags. The implication is increase in pricing of the paper bag, making most consumers prefer purchasing plastic bags.

Table 1. Representing effects of marine debris

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Although effort has been to reduce the use of plastic packaging, the transition to complete consumption of biodegradable paper bags should be quickened to minimize ecosystem degradation, health problems, and environmental deterioration. Attainment of radical reductions calls for a coordinated effort in various dimensions. Improvement of the after-se infrastructure in high-leaking and less developed regions is critical to reducing the rate of recovery. Companies should strengthen incentive of reusing, recycling and maintaining materials in system boundaries and lowering dependency on the use of plastic materials and steering innovation towards biodegradable and renewable materials. However, it is predicted that the outflow would be stabilized with forty-five percentage decrease in dependence on plastics, which implies that the aggregate accumulation would remain unchanged. Considering the revelations, despite the considerable efforts focused on combating the adverse effects of externalities of paper and plastic bags, a shift towards biodegradable and renewable materials is paramount.              

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