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Paper / Plastic Rubbish And The Environment
Jul 1, 1996

Waste or rubbish has not always been the major nuisance in human societies that it is today, as Judd H. Alexander (1993, p. 1) observes in his book In Defense of Garbage: ‘When our earliest Stone Age ancestors took up semi-permanent residence in caves, garbage became a problem. In a way, however, they had it easier than we do. Caves were plentiful and people were scarce. When debris began to accumulate on the floors of caves and near the entrances, the inhabitants just moved on to new locations, leaving their rubbish behind.’

Recently, the population of the world has grown enormously, as has consumption of goods and services, and this has meant an enormous increase in the volume of waste. Many scientific studies have been undertaken to find solutions to the ‘garbage problem’, which is, of course, also a pollution problem. Some studies showed that for plastics to be broken down completely and absorbed naturally could take as much as 400 years. Environmentally sensitive consumers therefore turned to using paper instead of plastics. But were they right to have done so? Or was it just a bit o f clever advertising by paper manufacturers?

Paper or plastic?

Paper manufacturers initiated many ‘anti-plastic’ campaigns. David Jacobson (1990) notes that they had lost about 60% of their grocery bag market to plastics by the 1980s. Paper once 20% more expensive than plastics was by then double the cost. But cost was not the only factor in consumer preferences. Technological advances made plastics thinner and lighter, requiring less storage space and reducing delivery costs. Consumers increasingly preferred lightweight plastic bags with moulded handles, and stores were happy to push the cheaper bags. Stone Container Corporation (which claims about 40% of the paper grocery market and 20% of the total grocery bag market) launched a vigorous campaign to raise consumer demand for paper grocery bags in the test markets of Jacksonville, Florida, and Hartford, Connecticut. The 13-week campaign included full-page newspaper ads, billboard advertising and 30-second prime time TV spots. According to Jacobson, the campaign improved paper bag sales by about 3%.

Plastic manufacturers fought back quickly, arguing that paper was not environmentally better than plastic: they ‘publicized findings that nothing degrades in a landfill - even biodegradable paper bags - thus negating part of paper’s environmental claim’ (Jacobson, 1990).

According to ‘The Changing Bag Market’, a market research report published by Business Communications Co. Inc., ‘low energy costs and favourable consumer response to plastic bags could increase plastic’s market share to 56.2% by the year 2000’ (quoted in ibid.).

The battle has remained remarkably positive. Both plastic and paper manufacturers acknowledge that they want to increase sales, but both express genuine concern for the environment.

Another preliminary study, done by Bank of America’s Environmental Policies and Programs Department, indicated that ‘though plastic film requires a bit more energy to manufacture, it may be the better choice because.., made with less water and chemicals’ (Bank of America, 1996. p.1).

Degradable plastics

Unlike traditional plastics, which may last 200 to 400 years, degradable plastics may deteriorate in a matter of months (GAO, 1988, p.8).

The report of the US General Accounting Office (GAO) grants that ‘degradable plastics may thus be able to reduce the life span of litter in the landscape and at sea; they also diminish the amount of plastics accumulating in landfills. Technical uncertainties about the performance of degradable plastics, however, have stirred some questions about their ability to alleviate these problems. As a result, some experts contend that recycling and incineration .... may be more effective responses to the environmental problems posed by plastics...:

In addition to their potential environmental benefits, it must be noted that degradable plastics offer new opportunities for use with agricultural products.

The private sector, local state and federal government have promoted the use of degradable plastics. In a letter dated January 19, 1988, Senator John Glenn, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, asked the GAO to conduct a study of federal government activities in the area of degradable plastics. Subsequently, the GAO contacted officials and scientists in the federal government and private sector. They found that the US Department of Agriculture, the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, and the National Science Foundation were together supporting 12 research and development projects directly related to degradable plastics, at a total funding level of $1.7 million in fiscal year 1988 (GAO, 1988, pp.8-13).

Recycling vs incineration of plastics

Incineration of paper or plastics is controversial: ‘... some people

object to the disposal of plastics [also paper] in waste-to- energy plants because, they say, plastics burned for energy are lost forever, but recycling allows the product to be used over and over again’ (Alexander, 1993, p. 138). Recycling is a better way of protecting the environment which has been gaining wider acceptance in recent years. Package goods titans such as Procter & Gamble and Lever Brothers, have both made commitments to use a percentage of recycled plastic resins in their detergent bottles and other consumer products. ‘Contrary to public presumptions, plastics are among the easiest materials to recycle, reports Amoco, one of two hundred companies re claiming millions of used plastic containers for conversion to paintbrush bristles, traffic signs, toys, floor tiles, wastebaskets, plastic lumber, and many other useful items...’ (ibid.)

As of 1990 about 20% of soft-drink bottles were being recycled for use in making textiles and fibres, appliance handles, etc. (Saunders, 1993, pp. 178-9). Among numerous other examples of applications for recycled plastics, McDonald’s Playlands are composed of partially shredded, worn-out tyres.

On the other side, while a number of US companies have adopted plans to buy recycled paper supplies, many have resisted instituting such policies because of concerns over cost or quality. Because of the current technology, recycled paper products can cost 50% to 60% more than new ones (Eisenhart, 1990, p.20).

For the present, then, it would appear that, contrary to common misconceptions; the use of plastics is better for the environment than the use of paper.


  • ALEXANDER, i.E-I. (1993) In Defense of Garbage, Praeger. Westport, CT.
  • BERNARD, K. & LAWLER, E.D. (1990) ‘Recycling, Yes. Buying recyclables? Well’, Business Marketing, 75(11), pp.30-2.
  • EISENHART, T, (1990) ‘There’s gold in that garbage!’ Business Marketing, 75(11), pp.2O-5.
  • GAO [=US General Accounting Office I (1988) Degradable Plastica: Standards, research, and development, Report to the Chairman,Committee on Govemmcntal Affairs, US Senate, Washington, DC.
  • JACOBSON, 0. (1990) ‘Paper marketers aim to bag their plastics cornpetitors’, Business Marketing, 75 (11), pp.32-3.