We have the power!...to give what we buy due consideration
Published: 24 February 2021
In his regular feature, Denis the Dustcart talks about how it’s hard being a conscious consumer. For instance, is replacing single-use plastic with single-use paper packaging really a solution?
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Supermarkets are minefields of packaging. How do we tell when something is truly a green alternative rather than simply coated in a significant layer of green wash?
It’s hard being a conscious consumer.
For instance, is replacing single-use plastic with single-use paper packaging really a solution?
Or even plastic bags-for-life with sturdy paper bags?
Paper is often held to be better for the planet than plastic, because it decomposes in nature whereas plastic has a physical legacy of dead wildlife.
Which, on the face of it, makes sense. But we can’t really afford to take things at face value in acting to preserve our climate and ecology.
Paper production and transportation uses significantly more fuel, water, energy and land than plastic production. Consequently, a single-use paper bag needs to be reused three times to lower its environmental impact to that of a single-use plastic bag.
A plastic bag-for-life requires four reuses in this equation, but it will remain strong enough to be reused dozens and dozens more times than the paper bag.
In fact, I have one of those supermarket woven plastic bags-for-life with the nylon sewn-on handles that has served me every week for fifteen years. It’s looking a little weather-worn, but so far it hasn’t polluted the ocean and I reckon its carbon footprint must be pretty small by now.
(Incidentally, a cotton bag has to be used 131 times before it has the same footprint as a single-use plastic bag. That’s over 30 times more than a plastic bag-for-life.)
Marketing the ability of a paper product to break down quickly in the environment is effectively advertising it as something we can just throw away without feeling guilt. We’re being told we can carry on buying it at our convenience, because it won’t harm wildlife if it ends up in the sea. This is the very definition of greenwashing. It won’t harm wildlife and it won’t be around for 400 years, so it’s harmless, no?
We have to address this misconception that single-use packaging that will break down in nature is automatically better than plastic just because it doesn’t have a legacy in physical form.
Sure, paper is less likely to pose a problem than plastic when it gets into the environment through negligent disposal, but the damage our waste does to the earth isn't caused only by its physical pollution of the natural world – by its physical presence in the environment.
Nothing we extract from the planet is ‘planet-kind’, despite what any marketing might suggest. Creating alternative types of waste doesn't count as reducing waste. If it's disposable and designed to break down rather than to be reused or recycled, it's at the bottom of the waste hierarchy. It is, quite literally, rubbish.
By rushing to replace single-use plastic with single-use alternatives such as card and paper, we may actually be accelerating towards disaster.
Just to be clear, I’m not advocating for plastic in single-use packaging. I’m suggesting that all single-use packaging, regardless of what it’s made from, is the problem at the heart of the wider problem of waste.
And of all the single-use items we produce, paper is one of the more harmful.
The embedded carbon in a paper packet and the biodiversity loss caused in its production are significant.
A huge amount of fuel is used in the production and transportation of paper – and while it may not be made directly from crude oil, neither in fact is plastic. Virgin plastic is produced largely as a by-product of natural gas extraction, which, though clearly presenting issues in itself, results in lower direct energy-expenditure. Plastic is also lighter to transport. In short, exchanging plastic for paper doesn’t mean we’re avoiding the consumption of fossil fuels. We may in fact be contributing to their greater consumption.
If we’re talking about paper made from virgin material (and paper can only be recycled a very few times before its fibres become too short to pulp), then we’re talking about deforestation and tree ‘farms’ – old wood with nice long fibres suitable for making paper being cut down and replaced with monocultures. We’re talking about the loss, on a huge scale, of the biodiversity essential for life on earth.
This is why it’s vital that we recycle as much of the paper we do end up buying as we possibly can. While still reliant on energy, water, chemicals, heat and fuel, recycled paper is infinitely less harmful than virgin paper and is every bit as vital as recycled plastic, so it follows that as many of the paper products we buy as possible should be made from recycled paper.
The fact is, however, that paper can only be recycled a relatively few number of times (when compared with plastic, metal and glass) before it doesn’t recycle anymore. Most wrapping paper doesn’t even recycle once, and here in Exeter we’ve asked people not to put it in their green bins since it limits the potential of our other paper to be recycled into quality products – namely newsprint.
Recycling isn’t, therefore, a solution in itself, but it is an essential process in the effort to reduce waste. More vital in that effort is cutting down on our consumption of single-use products – including paper. We aren't going to make a difference by exchanging one type of material that does significant harm as waste in the environment for another that does significant harm before it even becomes a product.
People talk about us having the power of ‘choice’ over what we buy, and this is ultimately true – but let’s face it: in today’s world, the odds are stacked against anyone trying to cut down on waste.
I’d rather say that we have the power to choose to try. To put as much effort in as we can spare. Enough people choosing to avoid generating as much disposable waste as possible will influence how society functions – and, eventually, how the human race lives.
The effort to change cannot be expected only of consumers, but we consumers need nevertheless to continue to evolve our understanding of what good or harm we do in making our choices – especially those compelled by good intentions.