Paper or plastic? That question isn’t just for bags anymore

Plastic strawsMost of us will remember being asked, “Paper or plastic?” a couple of decades ago when checking out at a retail store, particularly grocery stores. It was a time of change, and blown film plastic carrier bags were beginning to replace paper sacks at many grocery stores and other retail outlets. The war was on. Plastic pretty much won that battle, but is it losing the war?

A ban on plastic straws is becoming the new battle cry as a way to eliminate plastic litter from the environment. An interesting finding appeared in the Thomas Index Report, which measures industries and services being sourced through Thomasnet President & CEO Tony Uphoff penned “Sourcing Activity for Drinking Straws” in the June 4 report that tracked users of the platform. 

“Our data show that over the past 12 weeks, sourcing activity for this commodity is up 41% over its historical average,” wrote Uphoff. “Our firmographic buyer data show that three of the top industries driving this trend are—no surprise—the food & beverage industry, as well as the wholesale trade office supplies and the healthcare and medical industry.”

Uphoff attributes this trend to the current push to ban plastic drinking straws, citing for example, New York City’s recently introduced bill to ban plastic straws throughout the city, and, of course, the ever-persistent People’s Republic of California, “where a number of cities have already banned plastic straws. . . . The upward trend in sourcing activity for straws is likely to be driven by buyers looking for suppliers with the capability and capacity to produce and deliver paper straws en masse.”

The plastic bag bans are also having an impact on sourcing. Thomasnet noted that “sourcing activity for paper bags is up 152% month-over-month on the platform.”

For years we’ve noted some of the disadvantages of paper bags, including the fact that paper is heavy! Shipping pallets of paper sacks to retail stores means more weight and greater transportations costs, which also means more fuel being used in the shipping process. 

Additionally, paper requires a lot of water in the manufacturing process. I know—I’ve toured a paper manufacturing plant and have seen first-hand the huge vats of water filled with the pulp used to make paper. Sure, as the pulp goes through the process, the water is squeezed out into a reservoir where it goes through a cleaning process and is returned to the river from which it came originally. But water is a critical resource. If there’s a way to make a carrier bag without the use of tens of thousands of gallons of water, such as plastic film, wouldn’t that be a more green method?

Aardvark Straws, a maker of paper straws in Ft. Wayne, IN, says that their paper straws compost in 30 to 60 days, and break down in the marine environment in six months. However, their caveat is that the straws are only good for cold drinks (lasting two to three hours), as the paper straws quickly disintegrate in hot drinks. The website for Aardvark doesn’t say whether or not chlorine bleach is used to whiten the paper prior to it being colored or printed with logos and so forth, but most paper does use a bleach whitener.  

Does anyone really believe that all those people who threw out their plastic straws into the environment and created a mess are actually going to change their behavior when it comes to paper straws? I seriously doubt it. So, instead of being littered with plastic straws, beaches will be littered with paper straws. The only potential difference is that the paper straws will only be around for six months or so before disintegrating into tiny pieces that wash out to sea for the fish to eat. 

Someone should ask the fish: Paper or plastic?

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