What seems environmentally friendly at first glance may be more damaging than we think

Environmental consciousness has been growing in popularity in the past few years, with plastic being a hot topic of discussion. Companies, and grocery stores in particular, have made an effort to ban plastic packaging and products. Whole Foods is the first grocer in the United States to completely ban plastic grocery bags and replace them with paper instead. Though paper has the reputation of being an eco-friendly substitute for plastic products, the papermaking process is more environmentally damaging than people think. 

But what exactly goes into deciding the eco-friendliness of a product? Freshman Mariam Ahmad says it can be hard for the general public to know and be familiar with this information. 

“I think it’s pretty difficult,” Ahmad said. “But we can always look up the product and the company that produces it. From there, we can see what they do to make their product, since a lot of that information is not as straightforward as we may think.”

AP Environmental Science teacher Lora Lerner shares a similar sentiment, saying information like this is not obvious as it isn’t so readily available. 

“We don’t know a lot about how [a product] was manufactured and how it [will] be disposed of,” Lerner said. “So I know for myself I rely on organizations that do that, because it can be deceptive. Sometimes we think something is more efficient and it’s actually not, like the whole ‘paper versus plastic.’”

Senior Darren Chiu shares how he thinks an item’s production process is an important factor when determining its sustainability. 

“I think that in a lot of instances, for example, with electric cars or other eco-friendly things,” Chiu said. “If the production isn’t eco-friendly and [a product has to be used] many times just to match up with the impact of the manufacturing, then I think that kind of defeats the purpose.”

One of the more objective methods for determining whether or not a product is environmentally friendly is the life cycle assessment (LCA). The LCA of a product takes a look at the total environmental impact caused by said product from the beginning to the end of its life cycle. This includes processes such as the extraction of raw materials, the production process and disposal. 

Evaluating paper bags, which are commonly used paper products, can reveal its harmful effects on the environment. One of the most damaging effects of paper production is deforestation. Lerner states that obtaining paper sustainably from a tree farm is one thing, but doing so in a way where the surrounding environment is harmed is something else. 

“If you’re going up to a more pristine forest and cutting trees [down], then that’s not so ideal,” Lerner said. “Those are mature forests that are supporting a lot of biodiversity.”

A total of 14 million trees are cut down every year just to produce paper bags. The more trees are felled, the more carbon is released into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. But that’s not the worst of it, as Ahmad shares about the damaging effects of decreased biodiversity. 

“Deforestation [also contributes to] habitat loss and fragmentation, and that has lasting impacts.” Ahmad said. “When animals don’t have the habitat they need, they start dying out, which decreases biodiversity. That can affect us because biodiversity provides us with many ecosystem services.”

The production of paper requires chemicals such as sulfurous acid and limestone. Due to the excess number of these chemicals, a graphic by the Washington Post shows that the creation of paper bags emits 70 percent more air pollution and 50 times more water pollution than plastic bags. Additionally, producing one paper bag is an energy intensive process, much more so than a plastic bag, tallying up to about 2,649 kilojoules as compared to approximately 623 kilojoules. 

The biggest upside of paper bags is the fact that they can be recycled and composted much easier and cheaper than traditional plastic bags. According to Chiu, recycling has many benefits.

“In the event that we can actually recycle as much as we can, then I think things like plastic, metal, paper—all those can be eco-friendly if we recycle all of them.” Chiu said. “If we were choosing between paper and plastic, and we recycle both of them, that would solve the problem.”

The EPA states that recycling benefits both communities and the environment. Recycling reduces the amount of waste that ends up in landfills and incinerators. The main problems with landfills and incinerators is that many toxins from the items that end up there pollute the air, further contributing to global warming. Additionally, recycling saves raw materials such as wood, water, and even energy. 

While recycling has a fair share of benefits to the environment, the process of recycling paper is not as simple as it may seem. In order for the recycling to happen, many chemicals are added to paper to disperse the fibers and remove the ink.  This process adds to the environmental impact of paper bags as toxic fumes are emitted. Similar to the manufacturing of a paper bag, recycling it uses a lot of energy. It takes approximately 1,523 kilojoules to recycle a paper bag. For context, the total amount of energy that is used to create and recycle one paper bag is about the same amount that it takes to power a dishwasher for one cycle.

Lerner talks about some other ways that the recycling of paper is not as simple as it may seem. 

“Sometimes paper is not recycled at all, if it has a lot of plastic and ink.” Lerner said. “[You] throw paper into the recycling and it [may not] be recycled, so recycling’s kind of a whole tricky thing on its own because it’s not a miracle cure.” 

Lerner also mentions the fact that paper can’t be repurposed too many times.

“The fibers [of paper] do wear down over time, and it’s not endlessly recyclable in the same way as an aluminum can, which you can essentially endlessly recycle,” Lerner said. “But with paper, not so much.”

The sustainability of a grocery carrier bag is much more complex than it may seem. With an entire other side of a product taken into account to determine sustainability, eco-friendliness proves to be a whole lot different than it may seem. This can be seen more clearly by considering how many times a bag needs to be used to compensate for its environmental impact, in comparison to a traditional plastic bag. So if a plastic bag has to be used once to offset the damage, then a paper bag has to be used 43 times.

But at the end of the day, the best method to carry groceries sustainably is by reusing the bags that one currently owns as many times as possible. These bags are built to be durable and are perfectly fine to use multiple times. Getting as much use out of what one already has is ultimately the best solution.

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