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Explained: Are Paper Bags Truly Sustainable?

Paper bags are often considered more environmentally friendly than plastic bags because they are biodegradable.

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In July 2022, India implemented a ban on frequently littered single-use plastic items, aiming to combat plastic pollution. The ban included items like plastic straws, bags, face masks, coffee cups, and food packaging.

The Ministry for Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) had already banned polythene bags under 75 microns in September 2021, later extending the limit to 120 microns in December 2022.

With increasing awareness of environmental issues and the search for sustainable alternatives to single-use plastics, paper bags have become increasingly popular.

However, the question lingers: Are paper bags truly sustainable?

Explained: Are Paper Bags Truly Sustainable?

  1. 1. A Brief History Of Paper Bags

    Paper bags have been around for decades, even before plastic bags. Before they were mass-produced, it was much more common to wrap products in old newspapers or canvas. It wasn’t until much later that bags became mass-produced and accessible.

    In the 1800s, handmade fabric and wool bags were common until the Industrial Revolution brought mass-produced handbags and cloth bags. In 1852, Francis Wolle's machine-made paper bags emerged.

    American inventor Margaret Knight later improved them by inventing a machine for flat-bottomed bags, increasing their usefulness.

    This innovation made them widely popular for various purposes, including lunches, groceries, and gifts. Today, flat-bottomed paper bags are widely used globally.

    Expand
  2. 2. Are Paper Bag Sustainable?

    Paper bags are often considered more environmentally friendly than plastic bags because they are biodegradable and made from renewable raw materials. They are typically less harmful to the environment as compared to plastic bags and can be recycled or composted.

    However, Prof. Anjal Prakash, Clinical Associate Professor (Research) and Research Director, Bharti Institute of Public Policy ISB told The Quint that several variables affect their viability:

    “Paper manufacturers use chemicals, water, and energy, which might influence the environment. Additionally, single-use bags affect the environment regardless of the material used. If paper bags are sourced ethically, recycled, and used again, they can contribute to the sustainable development movement.”

    Unlike plastic bags, which can be washed, a paper bag is rendered useless as soon as it absorbs food or oil. When this happens, recycling becomes difficult, undermining the commonly cited argument about the recyclability of paper.

    The paper goes through a series of steps to be recycled, including collection, sorting, washing, purifying, drying, sometimes bleaching, and packaging. It involves significant machinery, energy, and resources. Not surprisingly, recycling 0.5kg of plastic requires 91% less energy than recycling the same amount of paper.

    "The bigger problem with paper bags is the toxicity. We don't talk about that. Many of these papers are contaminated by ink, paint, or additives. So, I think recycling is not necessarily very green, especially for paper and plastic.” She further added, "Anything that is based on material, whether it's plastic or paper or, for that matter, anything that is not going to be long lasting is a problem and not sustainable.”
    Bharati Chaturvedi, Founder and Director, Chintan

    The durability of a bag is another critical factor in determining its sustainability, and paper bags, unfortunately, fall short in this regard. Their lack of sturdiness makes them more disposable than their plastic counterparts.

    Expand
  3. 3. Are Cloth Bags The Next Best Alternative To Paper Bags?

    Cloth bags are considered better than paper bags because they are durable and can be reused multiple times. They are versatile and sturdy and can withstand repeated use in addition to being washed.

    However, cotton is a water-intensive crop that requires pesticides and emits nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas, contributing to toxicity and a larger environmental impact than is commonly recognised.

    While there are studies that suggest that a newly possessed cotton bag should be used at least 131 times, or a whopping 7,100 times, to offset its environmental impact, according to Chaturvedi, promoting the use of reusable non-cotton textile bags is more important than using cotton bags, which are highly chemically treated. She further explains:

    "The point is that we have a huge amount of old textiles that are being dumped in our laterals in India. If you go to any river, you will see some or all of the T-shirts lying there, especially where the river is not so deep. We need to be putting those into circulation. Just like we have thrift stores, we need to be able to make cloth bags out of these. And they don't have to look great. The key is to put them through a cycle that makes them reusable and create incentives for it."
    Expand
  4. 4. What Are the Solutions?

    1. Discount Incentives for Bringing Your Own Bag

    To promote sustainable shopping practises, several shops have stopped providing bags altogether, while shopping malls continue to sell cloth or paper bags for a fee, treating them as a regular commodity.

    While talking to The Quint, Dr Pranab J Patar, an acclaimed Environment and Sustainability Expert and CEO of the Global Foundation (GFAEHW), New Delhi, suggested that the next best way to incentivize shoppers to bring their already-possessed bags is by offering a certain discount on the total purchase amount.

    He also emphasised that "achieving sustainability on a larger scale will be possible when there is a significant demand for eco-friendly alternatives, which is only possible when people are sensitised and made aware of the already existing better options and the negative impacts of their current shopping bag preferences."

    2. Returnable Cloth Bag Vending Machine 

    Talking about how The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board installed a cloth bag vending machine at a fruit and vegetable market last year in Chennai, Chaturvedi proposed an innovative solution: "I would prefer having a vending machine that also takes cloth bags back after a scan."

    She proposed a vending machine that could not only dispense cloth bags but also accept them back after a scan, ensuring the return of usable bags and avoiding any unwanted items. This concept would take advantage of existing waste segregation technology.

    3. Promoting Community-Level Retail: Reviving Old Systems and Encouraging Refillable Purchases

    Chaturvedi further discussed the importance of community-level retail. In the past, we would purchase everyday items like vegetables and fruits from street vendors, who would wrap them in whatever paper was available.

    Nowadays, we often find community vendors standing outside our colonies. She explains:

    "We need community retail for various reasons. For instance, vendors can provide reusable bags, allowing customers to return them quickly after storing their items. Buying from distant sources, such as far-off supermarkets, makes this practise difficult. Therefore, community-level retail is essential for many items and will also help support people working in the informal sector."

    To achieve this, she added, there is a need to revive old systems like milk booths and weekly carts that used to visit residential areas for refillable purchases and launch campaigns that encourage people to buy from them, thereby significantly bringing down bag usage.

    Expand

A Brief History Of Paper Bags

Paper bags have been around for decades, even before plastic bags. Before they were mass-produced, it was much more common to wrap products in old newspapers or canvas. It wasn’t until much later that bags became mass-produced and accessible.

In the 1800s, handmade fabric and wool bags were common until the Industrial Revolution brought mass-produced handbags and cloth bags. In 1852, Francis Wolle's machine-made paper bags emerged.

American inventor Margaret Knight later improved them by inventing a machine for flat-bottomed bags, increasing their usefulness.

This innovation made them widely popular for various purposes, including lunches, groceries, and gifts. Today, flat-bottomed paper bags are widely used globally.

ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

Are Paper Bag Sustainable?

Paper bags are often considered more environmentally friendly than plastic bags because they are biodegradable and made from renewable raw materials. They are typically less harmful to the environment as compared to plastic bags and can be recycled or composted.

However, Prof. Anjal Prakash, Clinical Associate Professor (Research) and Research Director, Bharti Institute of Public Policy ISB told The Quint that several variables affect their viability:

“Paper manufacturers use chemicals, water, and energy, which might influence the environment. Additionally, single-use bags affect the environment regardless of the material used. If paper bags are sourced ethically, recycled, and used again, they can contribute to the sustainable development movement.”

Unlike plastic bags, which can be washed, a paper bag is rendered useless as soon as it absorbs food or oil. When this happens, recycling becomes difficult, undermining the commonly cited argument about the recyclability of paper.

The paper goes through a series of steps to be recycled, including collection, sorting, washing, purifying, drying, sometimes bleaching, and packaging. It involves significant machinery, energy, and resources. Not surprisingly, recycling 0.5kg of plastic requires 91% less energy than recycling the same amount of paper.

"The bigger problem with paper bags is the toxicity. We don't talk about that. Many of these papers are contaminated by ink, paint, or additives. So, I think recycling is not necessarily very green, especially for paper and plastic.” She further added, "Anything that is based on material, whether it's plastic or paper or, for that matter, anything that is not going to be long lasting is a problem and not sustainable.”
Bharati Chaturvedi, Founder and Director, Chintan

The durability of a bag is another critical factor in determining its sustainability, and paper bags, unfortunately, fall short in this regard. Their lack of sturdiness makes them more disposable than their plastic counterparts.

0

Are Cloth Bags The Next Best Alternative To Paper Bags?

Cloth bags are considered better than paper bags because they are durable and can be reused multiple times. They are versatile and sturdy and can withstand repeated use in addition to being washed.

However, cotton is a water-intensive crop that requires pesticides and emits nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas, contributing to toxicity and a larger environmental impact than is commonly recognised.

While there are studies that suggest that a newly possessed cotton bag should be used at least 131 times, or a whopping 7,100 times, to offset its environmental impact, according to Chaturvedi, promoting the use of reusable non-cotton textile bags is more important than using cotton bags, which are highly chemically treated. She further explains:

"The point is that we have a huge amount of old textiles that are being dumped in our laterals in India. If you go to any river, you will see some or all of the T-shirts lying there, especially where the river is not so deep. We need to be putting those into circulation. Just like we have thrift stores, we need to be able to make cloth bags out of these. And they don't have to look great. The key is to put them through a cycle that makes them reusable and create incentives for it."
ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

What Are the Solutions?

1. Discount Incentives for Bringing Your Own Bag

To promote sustainable shopping practises, several shops have stopped providing bags altogether, while shopping malls continue to sell cloth or paper bags for a fee, treating them as a regular commodity.

While talking to The Quint, Dr Pranab J Patar, an acclaimed Environment and Sustainability Expert and CEO of the Global Foundation (GFAEHW), New Delhi, suggested that the next best way to incentivize shoppers to bring their already-possessed bags is by offering a certain discount on the total purchase amount.

He also emphasised that "achieving sustainability on a larger scale will be possible when there is a significant demand for eco-friendly alternatives, which is only possible when people are sensitised and made aware of the already existing better options and the negative impacts of their current shopping bag preferences."

2. Returnable Cloth Bag Vending Machine 

Talking about how The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board installed a cloth bag vending machine at a fruit and vegetable market last year in Chennai, Chaturvedi proposed an innovative solution: "I would prefer having a vending machine that also takes cloth bags back after a scan."

She proposed a vending machine that could not only dispense cloth bags but also accept them back after a scan, ensuring the return of usable bags and avoiding any unwanted items. This concept would take advantage of existing waste segregation technology.

3. Promoting Community-Level Retail: Reviving Old Systems and Encouraging Refillable Purchases

Chaturvedi further discussed the importance of community-level retail. In the past, we would purchase everyday items like vegetables and fruits from street vendors, who would wrap them in whatever paper was available.

Nowadays, we often find community vendors standing outside our colonies. She explains:

"We need community retail for various reasons. For instance, vendors can provide reusable bags, allowing customers to return them quickly after storing their items. Buying from distant sources, such as far-off supermarkets, makes this practise difficult. Therefore, community-level retail is essential for many items and will also help support people working in the informal sector."

To achieve this, she added, there is a need to revive old systems like milk booths and weekly carts that used to visit residential areas for refillable purchases and launch campaigns that encourage people to buy from them, thereby significantly bringing down bag usage.

ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

4. Driving Change through Education, Collaboration, and Government Support for Sustainable Alternatives

According to Professor Prakash, “People should prioritise using reusable bags and develop the habit of doing so every time they go shopping. They may educate relatives and family members about the advantages of reusable items for the environment. Collaboration between people, companies, and decision-makers is crucial. Governments should pass laws and encourage environmentally friendly alternatives. Lastly, fostering the circular economy and funding research and development for new, eco-friendly materials may help us move towards sustainability.”

Even before paper and plastic grocery bags became popular, bags were typically made of fabric and were completely reusable. It is therefore high time we start answering the question "Paper or cloth?" with "Neither. I brought my own."

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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