Ask the expert:
Paper, plastic, or reusable?

The answer isn’t simple.

Technical and consumer recycling solutions are needed—but both are widely misunderstood.

Since the celebration of Earth Day began in 1970, modern society has been actively discussing ways to support and improve the environment. From a packaging perspective, that discussion often boils down to an impassioned debate between the merits of paper, plastic, or reusables.
The current focus in that debate is plastic. Local governments are banning plastic water bottles in entire cities and surcharging consumers who walk out of grocery stores carrying plastic bags, if they allow plastic bags at all. That’s happening at the consumer level, other proposed regulations are aimed at the supply chain.
Of course, not everyone agrees with the denouncement of plastic packaging. In fact, cloth manufacturers were sued for making false statements about plastics. And, of course, using paper bags means condoning the increased consumption of trees, an environmental no-no of its own.
So, what is the answer to the paper, plastic, or reusables question? We asked Bob Kimmel, who has studied packaging for more than 30 years, holds several patents, and has served as an expert witness in numerous packaging-related lawsuits. In fact, Bob and some Clemson associates released an in-depth study, “Life Cycle Assessment of Grocery Bags in Common Use in the United States,” in 2014.
While Bob is an unequivocal environmental protection advocate and he readily acknowledges the need to lessen the environmental impact of plastics, he brings some interesting nuances to the paper versus plastics discussion. Here’s his take on the current debate:
“Do I believe that banning plastic bags and plastic bottles is a good thing? Emphatically, no. We should be spending our efforts and our money on education and infrastructure so the we can make use of the valuable properties of plastics and reuse or dispose of them properly,” he says.
While Bob’s answer is short and specific regarding banning plastics, his big-picture views reflect the multifaceted nature of the problem. “These are very complex issues fraught with competing needs. We need packaging to keep food safe and reduce food waste. Science and technology can only go so far to resolve these issues. Overriding the science are consumer understanding and consumer behaviors,” he explains.

A look at our choices

For many, paper seems to be the obvious choice. It’s recyclable and trees are a renewable resource, but Bob points out some flaws in this logic. “Paper bags, even with 100% recycled content, have significantly higher average impacts on the environment than either reusable bags or lightweight plastic bags,” according to Bob’s Clemson study. And, while paper bags are recyclable, this is only an advantage if consumers actually recycle them. If not, paper bags sit in landfills just like plastic bags, where both will persist for years. Overall, paper bags are responsible for seven times more environmental impact than lightweight plastic bags in comparative use, Bob says. Moreover, we need our mature trees to pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
What about reusable bags? They provide advantages, but there are some caveats. While today’s consumers are more likely to remember to bring reusable bags with them, they must do so many times in order to lower their average negative impacts on the environment versus lightweight plastic bags. Do you know how many times? For non-woven polypropylene bags, each bag must be reused at least 30 times to meet this target. Cloth bags require an astounding 300 times of reuse to make up for their environmental impacts. Additionally, reusable bags pose health risks if they are not properly and regularly cleaned, but nearly 50% of consumers never clean them or do so infrequently, according to the Clemson study.
Lightweight plastic bags, on the other hand, offer several advantages and should not be the villain. For example, they are often reused by consumers, such as for trash, and they make up less than 1% of litter, according to the Clemson study. Additionally, lightweight plastic bags are made from a byproduct of natural gas production, not from imported oil, and natural gas is a plentiful resource in the United States.
Plastic packaging, in general, is essential to the supply chain. “We really can’t do without plastics. Plastic packaging is essential to keep food safe and to help the huge problem of food waste. Plastic packages are lighter than alternatives and they can be made with less total material weight. They result in lower shipping costs and, in particular, lower energy use for transportation,” Bob explains.
There is, however, recognition that not enough is being done to develop plastics that will biodegrade in the ocean. This is not an easy problem since the point of plastic bottles is to keep water in—not be susceptible to it, Bob explains. Some biodegradable plastics are already in commercial use, but that does not mean their overall environmental impact is favorable. The necessary recycling infrastructure is not adequate, and the likely by-products of biodegradation include greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane. Because of these issues, most scientists believe that biodegradable plastics are a last resort, not a solution.

The solution is to reuse/recycle—which requires consumer behavioral changes

Finding an effective reusable/recyclable solution has been elusive. Simply returning to glass bottles and metal cans is not viable because many of these materials create additional shipping-based and resource-based environmental impacts. Mechanical recycling (cleaning and reprocessing plastics) eventually degrades properties to the point of non-usability. An alternative solution receiving a great deal of current attention is chemical recycling, in which plastics are reprocessed into their original building blocks, which can then be used to make new plastics as good as the originals.
In reaction to the outcry over plastic soft drink bottles, some manufacturers have switched back to aluminum cans. Aluminum is lightweight, one advantage, and the consumer understands that aluminum cans should and can be recycled, a major second advantage because consumer participation is key.
We can already transform a high percentage of the plastics used for packaging to cost-effective recyclable materials. But that’s the smallest part of the challenge, the larger issue is changing human behavior, Bob says. Today, it’s estimated only 5% of plastic packaging is recycled. The plastic packaging on our beaches and trapped in our shoreline infrastructure is put there by people.
“We need to simultaneously build the infrastructure to collect and process recycled articles and invest in educating the public, across the world, that plastics that can’t be reused must be recycled. In my opinion, these two tasks can only be accomplished by a joint effort of industry and governments, supported by a substantial financial investment,” Bob says.
“The environmental groups and media that have spent so much effort convincing the public that plastics are bad need to understand that we are not going to feed the world with safe food that is not wasted without plastic packaging. These groups should turn their voices to reeducating the public that reuse/recycling is an effective new direction that will not succeed without everyone’s participation. Ultimately, it’s people who create the waste issues and people who can help resolve them, Bob says.
Ironically, perhaps, Bob’s message is not a new one. It was, in fact, echoed on a poster created for the first observance of Earth Day in 1970—when cartoonist Walt Kelly reminded the world, through his character Pogo Possum, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Bob Kimmel is frequently called to testify as an expert witness in packaging, polymer science, and plastics patent infringement, trade dress, and breach of contract cases. He holds numerous patents, has multiple materials engineering degrees, as well as his Doctor of Science (ScD), from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For the past 20 years, he has taught at Clemson University.
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