Solid Waste & Recycling

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Paper and Plastic Scrap. Literally.

The waste management story of the summer has to be the recent scrap between the paper and plastics industries over whose bag is environmentally superior.


The waste management story of the summer has to be the recent scrap between the paper and plastics industries over whose bag is environmentally superior.

This was not a fight that the paper industry sought, but its arguments were interesting.

The catalyst for the latest donnybrook between these old adversaries was a decision by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario to drop plastic bags from its stores and replace them with paper, claiming this is better for the environment. Whether or not this is true, it can be argued that the LCBO failed to manage the issue properly. The crown corporation could have continued to push its reusable cloth bags and/or given consumers a choice of recyclable bags for a fee. Slamming plastic needlessly antagonized the Environmental Plastics Industry Council (EPIC).

EPIC responded with its own information campaign designed to neutralize the LCBO’s dissing of its material. The campaign included trotting out various lifecycle analyses that purport to show the benefits of plastic bags over the competitors. (See article, page 45.) Fair enough, but the campaign included disparagement of paper bags.

The Paper and Paperboard Packaging En vironmental Council (PPEC) went into action. On July 22 it issued a news release with the unambiguous title, “Plastics industry should get its own act together instead of attacking paper bags.” The release stated that, “It seems like every time something goes badly for the plastics industry that it lashes out at paper.”

“We’re getting a bit tired of this distraction campaign, frankly,” stated John Mullinder, executive director of PPEC, who then wasted no time giving the plastics industry a hiding. “Why don’t they focus on the real issues like litter behaviour; almost 80 per cent of plastics going to the dump; health concerns?”

PPEC pointed out that some 78 per cent of plastics packaging went to landfill in 2006, according to Stewardship Ontario, the industry funding organization for Ontario’s blue box system.

“The largest portion of that was plastic film which (at 57,000 tonnes) had the dubious honor of being the single-largest packaging material going to the dump. And that’s on a weight basis! (Stewardship Ontario, Table 1: Generation and Recovery, 2006).”

Mullinder was furious at the plastic industry’s “cheap shots at paper” and its “using emotive and non-scientific terms such as ‘environmentally friendly’– a meaningless term, according to the Canadian Standards Association and the Canadian Competitions Bureau — and “tree-hungry” paper bags.”

Perhaps we should talk about “oil-hungry” plastics, suggested Mullinder. “For the record, most of the paper bags used in Canada come from renewable plantation forests in the US that have been certified by internationally recognized third parties as sustainably managed. In Canada, paper bags are made from wood chips, shavings and sawdust left over from logging and sawmilling operations (the lumber being used to build homes, schools and hospitals). Again, almost 90 per cent of Canada’s managed forests are third-party certified as sustainably managed.”

PPEC took the plastics industry to task for trotting out studies, many of them commissioned by themselves, and others that have little relevance to Canada and Canadian circumstances.

In a footnote, Mullinder pointed out that talk about the “carbon footprint” of paper versus plastic bags is misleading. “Emissions of carbon dioxide from the decomposition of paper can be considered part of the carbon cycle and therefore do not add to the total carbon dioxide load in the atmosphere.

The arguments and counter-arguments from EPIC and PPEC don’t so much convince one that either paper or plastic bags are better so much as they remind us that the issue of lifecycle analysis is complicated and scientific claims have to be greeted somewhat skeptically. It’s difficult for the layperson to decide whether paper or plastic makes a more eco-efficient bag. In the end, the LCBO made a misstep and EPIC compounded the problem by throwing stones, instead of simply defend-re-defending itself. The plastics industry is on the defensive in communities across Canada as the plastic bag is, rightly or wrongly, becoming a sort of poster child for the throwaway society.

But the other conclusion that all of this leads to, for environmentally minded folks, is one that needs no lifecycle study. Using a reusable cloth bag simply sidesteps the whole issue. Or you can do what I do when making a small purchase at the liquor store, and simply ask for no bag at all.

Guy Crittenden is editor of this magazine. Contact Guy at gcrittenden@solidwastemag.com


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