Ahead of plastic straw ban, paper firm creates green alternative
Paper or Plastic: Making an Environmentally-Friendly Choice
Each has pros and cons when it comes to use, reuse, and recycling. But the answer may be another alternative altogether.
By Diana Rodriguez
Medically Reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
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If you struggle at the grocery store trying to figure out whether paper or plastic plates, cups, bags, and other goods are better choices for the environment, you're probably not alone. There's much discussion and debate over which material is more environmentally friendly and which is better for recycling. So what's the right answer to the paper vs. plastic question? Believe it or not, there isn't really a good one.
Paper, Plastic, and Recycling
Neither is the greenest option, according to Adrienne Spahr, CEO of Green Living Consulting in Washington, D.C.
"Avoiding paperandplastic would be the greenest option," says Spahr, "because both can affect the environment negatively, depending on the use."
It would be better for the environment to break the habit of immediately reaching for disposable materials out of convenience, Spahr suggests. Instead, look for options like carrying a reusable coffee mug or thermos to avoid getting a paper or Styrofoam cup on your morning coffee run. Buying a reusable water bottle is also much more environmentally friendly than recycling disposable plastic water bottles.
Where Do Used Paper and Plastic Materials End Up?
Both paper and plastic have pros and cons, says Spahr. First, paper tends to take up more space in landfills than plastic, and paper that's been used for food (like paper plates and cartons) usually aren't applicable for recycling. Plastic takes much longer to biodegrade, but it can be recycled right away and used again for another purpose.
What’s more, it's hard to predict what will happen to paper and plastic materials once they reach landfills because they can be handled in any number of ways. Many times, waste is sealed inside a plastic bin or container and sometimes buried underground. While the container keeps harmful materials from seeping into the environment, it also prevents both paper and plastic from breaking down.
"That's why our philosophy is to try to minimize your need for paper and plastic as much as possible because you never know where it's going to go," says Spahr.
Reusing Rather Than Recycling
Reusing is the greenest choice you can make. But even reusable materials, like plates, cups, dishes, and silverware, can take a toll on the environment because they have to be washed using water and detergent.
"You have to have a holistic approach to green practices," Spahr says. That means considering the environmental impact of every product you use and every action you take. To conserve water and minimize chemicals in the environment, Spahr suggests just quickly rinsing out your coffee mug between refills throughout the day instead of washing with soap. (To avoid the spread of germs, you should do this only with cups that you personally will be reusing, not with cups, dishes, or utensils that others may use after you.)
Use green soaps and detergents, and never leave the water running when you wash or rinse dishes — environmental conservation should include water usage, too.
Putting Green Habits in Perspective
When going green, says Spahr, "everything really is so interconnected that you have to address each part of it." Don’t just look at an individual item, like a paper or plastic bag, but rather at your overall lifestyle, what you're doing with those objects, and other environmentally friendly changes that you can make, she suggests.
The bottom line is this: The most environmentally-friendly choice you can make is to avoid paperandplastic materials in favor of reusable ones, says Spahr. And be careful about how you use and care for those reusable materials to limit the amount of chemicals you introduce into the environment.
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