The age old paper vs. plastic debate transcends beyond grocery bags. There are plastic and paper options for cutlery, cups, binders and more- and paper is always framed as the eco-friendly option. However, while paper is more eco-friendly if you’re primarily concerned about plastic pollution, it shouldn’t be viewed as the holy grail of environmentalism.
The impacts of paper start at sourcing. 40% of the world's wood harvest is used for paper manufacturing. While some wood is sourced from sustainably managed forests, most isn’t, driving deforestation, destroying habitats and leading to carbon emissions. This is, arguably, equally as bad as the resource sourcing that is required for plastics, which includes natural gas extraction and refining.
The next step is to turn this wood harvest into paper, which is a very greenhouse gas-intensive process. 9% of carbon dioxide emissions from the manufacturing industries comes from the paper industry, and in the U.S., the paper and pulp industry is ranked as the 4th largest emitter of greenhouse gases among all manufacturing industries. When compared to plastic bags, paper generates 3 times more greenhouse gases. The manufacturing process also requires a large amount of water; 4 times more than plastic bags.
The greenhouse emissions continue through disposal. While paper is recyclable and has a relatively high recycling rate of 65%, a lot of it still ends up in our landfills. Paper makes up around ¼ of landfills, and releases methane as it degrades, contributing to global warming. However, the good aspect of paper is that it is biodegradable and compostable- unless it is colored or contains a glossy coating. Unlike plastic, it can be reincorporated into the environment and doesn’t cause the health issues that are connected to plastic pollution.
Paper underperforms plastic in some aspects, is equally as bad in others, and in terms of disposal, is better. This means that, all in all, we should work to minimize our primary resource consumption of both paper and plastic. Here are 5 ways to do that.
If you buy and use reusables made out of materials like glass, metal, bamboo or stainless steel, instead of single-use products made out of paper and plastic, you can avoid these environmental impacts altogether. When you go to the grocery store, you shouldn’t have to use paper or plastic- you should bring a reusable bag. However, remember that reusables, like single-use products, still have environmental impacts. They require raw materials, energy and water to be produced, which impacts the environment. When you buy a reusable item, you should view it as an investment, and should use it until it’s on its last legs. Ideally, you should make do with what you already have. Upcycle an old pasta sauce jar into a coffee cup and recycle old clothes into a reusable grocery tote.
Buy Recycled Materials
Recycled paper requires 60% less energy to produce materials made out of recycled paper than it does non-recycled paper. So, when you absolutely have to buy a paper product, opt for ones made out of some percentage of recycled content, like these notebooks.
If you reduce how much you buy, you’ll reduce how many resources you consume, reducing your carbon footprint and the carbon footprint of manufacturing industries. Considering consumerism is responsible for 60-80% of environmental impacts according to this study, minimalism is one of the best things you can do for the environment (and your wallet).
Recycle and Compost
Recycling paper mitigates the energy needed to produce products out of new paper, and composting paper products can mitigate the methane emissions that come from paper degrading in the landfill. It can also improve soil quality and can reduce the need for chemical fertilizers if applied to farmland. Just remember- colored and glossy paper can’t be composted.
Opt for Hemp or Bamboo
Hemp is positioning itself as an eco-friendly alternative for paper products. Hemp grows faster than trees, produces twice as much fiber per acre, and sequesters a lot of carbon as it grows. Bamboo is similar- it’s fast-growing and can be used as a substitute for paper in things like toilet paper, single-use plates or notebook paper.
is the blog manager for Zero Waste Club, combining her love for writing with her passion for all things environmental sustainability. She is currently a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where she is studying journalism, environmental studies, and food studies in hopes of building a career in environmental activism. You can find her on Instagram as @kaylaguilliams.