Have you heard about the three R’s? “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!” It turns out that not all three R’s are weighted equally. In fact, when given a choice between a plastic, paper, and reusable bag, it is not always necessarily the most sustainable choice to choose the paper or reusable bag! How does each R truly impact our carbon emissions? And what scientifically-backed actions can you take to be more environmentally conscious with plastics and alternatives? Moreover, did you know that nationally, only 9% of plastic is recycled due to the selectivity of recycling processors and different types of plastics? Or that the paper bag industry is highly carbon-expensive and environmentally destructive? Will plastic bans truly solve the plastic problem? Let’s uncover the complexities of our recycling problem through a lens of plastic sciences and experimental analysis.
Photo of plastic cup by the coastline by Catherine Sheila.
We live in an era where inconvenience is the norm, and plastic is present in everything we use. That means we need all kinds of plastic to solve all kinds of problems: we currently have formulated seven types of plastics that are commonly used. Even a singular product—a juice box, toothpaste containers, and chip packets—can be made up of multiple types of plastics like polypropylene and polyethylene. Due to the energy-intensive nature of sorting these multi-plastic waste items, or multi-layer plastics (MLP), there exists no recycling market for them.
They are not alone. Black plastics, which are difficult to alter in cosmetic color, are “economically inefficient” and kicked to the curb. Hypothetically, if MLPs and black plastics were able to be recycled, what would the plastic industry do to the plastic already contaminating the environment? Without economic motivation: not a lot.
Recycling infrastructure, being extremely complicated and expensive to build, is not an economically viable solution. Multinational corporations like Pepsi, Cargill, and Exxon utilize the facade of efficient recycling to continue creating plastic waste while maintaining their public image and misdirecting citizens. Due to all of these factors, the recycling industry does not come close to solving the plastic problem.
A quick search for the amount of plastics that end up in the oceans would reveal the frightening realities of microplastic infiltration of Earth’s ecosystems. For one, a 2020 study found 1.9 million microplastic pieces in an area of about 11 square feet in the Mediterranean Sea. These microplastics are likely impacting everything from our physical health through the food and products we consume, to the Earth’s ability to keep itself cool. Hence, many state governments are taking action to place a ban on plastic. Are bans truly effective in solving the plastic problem? In a recent Ocean Cleanup’s Pacific garbage patch study, 46% of plastic pollution in the ocean was comprised of fish nets. Combined with ropes and lines, this would amount to 52% of all plastic waste in the ocean. A ban on consumer plastics such as plastic straws and bags would not only be incredibly inefficient but would divert attention from the true players of the plastic industry.
First, what are our alternatives? Although paper bags are easily compostable, they also pose the greatest quantity of carbon emissions and water usage when compared to plastic and reusable bags. 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.”
In contrast, plastic by far has the smallest carbon impact due to its cheap and light materials. Plastic bags are also more likely to be reused in some cultures, especially as garbage bags, storage units, and even for art, fashion, and design purposes. If the entire lifecycle of a plastic bag is tracked, plastic is often the least impactful bag in terms of emissions. You might mention that there are cotton or other reusable bags made from organic materials made to be reused. However, due to the energy intensiveness of cotton and natural material production, each bag would need to be used from “100 and 2,954 uses for its environmental impact to be equivalent to the environmental impacts of the conventional plastic bag.” In fact, 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.
There also seems to be an underlying importance in how many times we use our plastic products, and how we dispose of them. Quoting a recent Stanford article, the answer to the question about which bag you should pick at the grocery store is—you guessed it—a “mixed bag.” If single-use paper bags and plastic bag bans are band-aid solutions to the plastic problem, what can we do to help?
As consumers, we need to focus on the reduction, re-usage, and disposal of plastic: all while being grounded in scientific data and trends. However, when stuck hyper-fixating on which bag to buy at the supermarket, let’s start thinking about plastic as a collective, global problem.
Graphic of environmental impact comparison by Hydrock with Environmental Agency data (2006).
So, “Who are the largest players and stakeholders in the plastic industry?” If 52% of plastic pollution in the ocean is made up of fishing nets and gear, plastic bags are just the tip of the iceberg. From fishing tools to packaging, to hygiene purposes, and transportation, much of plastic use is invisible to the everyday consumer. Based on the OECD’s first Global Plastics Outlook findings, only 12% of plastic waste originates from consumer goods.
The plastic problem is ultimately one of irresponsible corporate promotion of single-usage and neglect of proper disposal practices. From plastic bottle polluters like Coca-Cola and Néstle to ghost gear polluters from the obscure fishing industry, we need to hold industries and companies accountable. When we band together to protest corporate decisions and create cultural change, our impact is undeniable.
Besides reusing your bags and finding responsible places to dispose of your plastic waste, you might consider signing petitions for better corporate regulation. You might demand the demotion of single-use products, especially for products that can be used countless times like ZipLock bags. You might protest the usage of bottom trawling in the Monterey Bay. You might lobby our representatives and senators for better regulation of litter and irresponsible waste disposal through policies such as the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act. Or talk to our local Californian scientists who will be joining the UN’s Plastic Pollution Treaty Conference. Although individual action is inspiring, collective action and corporate accountability will be what counts.
The plastic problem can not be solved alone.
“Billions of Pounds of Microplastics Are Entering the Oceans Every Year. Researchers Are Trying to Understand Their Impact.” CBS News, CBS Interactive, 25 Dec. 2023, www.cbsnews.com/news/microplastics-environmental-impact-oceans-research-fish-health/.
Cadman, James, et al. “Environment Group Research Report.” Scottish Government, Crown , 2005, webarchive.nrscotland.gov.uk/3000/https://www.gov.scot/Resource/Doc/57346/0016899.pdf.
Environmental and Economic Highlights of the Results of the Life Cycle Assessment of Shopping Bags, RECYC-QUÉBEC, 2017, allaboutbags.ca/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/ENGLISH_FINAL-Quebec-LCA-Highlights.pdf.
Lebreton, L., Slat, B., Ferrari, F. et al. Evidence that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is rapidly accumulating plastic. Sci Rep 8, 4666 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-22939-w
Lui, Brendan. “Here’s Why Recycling Doesn’t Work - Purpose Rising Blog.” rePurpose Global, rePurpose Global, 28 Apr. 2019, repurpose.global/blog/post/the-recycling-paradox.
OECD (2022), Global Plastics Outlook: Economic Drivers, Environmental Impacts and Policy Options, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/de747aef-en.
Thompson, Claire. “Paper, Plastic or Reusable?” Stanford Magazine, Stanford University, Sept. 2017, stanfordmag.org/contents/paper-plastic-or-reusable#:~:text=A%20bag%27s%20impact%20is%20more,of%20waterways%20at%20higher%20rates.