Are paper and cardboard actually greener than plastic?

The first thing that comes to mind when we think of paper is that it is made of cellulose – a natural polymer that is the main component of plant cell walls. Most paper is made from trees, although some paper can be made from other types of plants, such as bamboo and hemp. However, few people are aware of how much its production really costs? About 24 trees are needed to create 1 ton of paper, which must be cut down and processed in a complicated process that additionally uses huge amounts of water, which is irreversibly contaminated with the chemicals used.

Paper production is not just about cutting down trees. This is a process that also involves “pulping” the trees into pulp and then bleaching it with chlorine or oxidizing agents to remove any remaining impurities and give the paper its characteristic whiteness. The pulp is then molded and dried, and finally pressed and smoothed to improve its appearance and surface quality. This process uses a lot of energy and the chemicals used are toxic and contribute to air and water pollution.

Despite these concerns, many people still consider paper to be “green” because it is 100% recyclable. However, to compensate for the environmental impact of paper production, a paper bag would need to be used at least 3 times. Unfortunately, paper bags are not durable enough to be used up to 3 times and usually end their life after the first use. In addition, they are heavier, less durable and are not suitable for use in rain or high humidity.

On the other hand, the production and transport of paper generates more pollution than plastic. According to a document published in 2011 by the Northern Ireland Assembly, for every truck loaded with plastic bags, there are as many as seven trucks with the same amount of paper bags.

Does this mean that we should completely abandon paper in favor of plastic? Of course not! Plastic bags are mainly made of ethylene, which is the so-called “forever plastic” – a by-product of petroleum production. It does not biodegrade in the natural environment, but decomposes into a form of microplastic, which is one of the biggest problems and civilization challenges of today’s world.

An alternative could be bioplastics – materials based on natural raw materials, such as thermoplastic starch, that decompose in the natural environment without polluting it. Of course, they are not perfect – organic decomposition also has an impact on the increase in CO2 emissions, and the soil in which bioplastic is composted should not be used for agricultural crops.

In conclusion, paper production is not as “green” as it might seem at first glance. In fact, paper and cardboard should not automatically be seen as green solutions because their production is very environmentally invasive. When choosing an ecological material, it is worth looking at this issue in a broader context and not succumb to stereotypes or common ideas on the subject.


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