Paper Bags Emit 3.3 More Greenhouse Gas Than Plastic Bags

The EPA has stated that it takes 13 to 17 trees to make one ton of paper bags and that 955,000 tons of paper bags were used in the United States in 1997. That's 13 to 17 million trees per year. As the reports discussed below make clear, logging and deforestation are major contributors to CO2 emissions. If paper bag usage is increased, tens of million additional trees will have to be chopped. In the plastic versus paper debate, anti-plastic bag activists have lost sight of this issue. Paper bags contribute 3.3 times more greenhouse gas emissions than plastic bags.
The Environmental Paper Network (EPN) has published a comprehensive report entitled: “The State of the Paper Industry.” The EPN states in the report as follows:
The paper industry’s activities – and our individual use and disposal of paper in our daily lives—have enormous impacts. These include loss and degradation of forests that moderate climate change, destruction of habitat for countless plant and animal species, pollution of air and water with toxic chemicals such as mercury and dioxin, and production of methane—a potent greenhouse gas—as paper decomposes in landfills, to name just a few.
One of the most significant, and perhaps least understood, impacts of the paper industry is climate change. Every phase of paper’s lifecycle contributes to global warming, from harvesting trees to production of pulp and paper to eventual disposal.
The climate change effects of paper carry all the way through to disposal. If paper is landfilled rather than recycled, it decomposes and produces methane, a greenhouse gas with 23 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide. More than one-third of municipal solid waste is paper, and municipal landfills account for 34 percent of human related methane emissions to the atmosphere, making landfills the single largest source of such emissions. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has identified the decomposition of paper as among the most significant sources of landfill methane.
According to the report: * Plastics contribute 4% of toxic emissions * Paper contributes 12% of toxic emissions
According to the report at page 5, discards in the U.S. Municipal solid waste streams by material are as follows: * Plastics 16% * Paper and paperboard 25%
The Daily Green has summarized the EPN report. Some of its observations are as follows: 1. Forests store 50% of the world's terrestrial carbon. (In other words, they are awfully important "carbon sinks" that hold onto pollution that would otherwise lead to global warming.)
2. Half the world's forests have already been cleared or burned, and 80% of what's left has been seriously degraded.
3. 42% of the industrial wood harvest is used to make paper.
4. The paper industry is the 4th largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions among United States manufacturing industries, and contributes 9% of the manufacturing sector's carbon emissions.
5. If the United States cut office paper use by just 10% it would prevent the emission of 1.6 million tons of greenhouse gases -- the equivalent of taking 280,000 cars off the road.
6. Paper accounts for 25% of landfill waste (and one third of municipal landfill waste).
7. Municipal landfills account for one third of human-related methane emissions (and methane is 23-times more potent a greenhouse gas than is carbon dioxide).

Manuel Martinez

Project GreenBag, 2200 Market St, San Francisco, CA, 94114, United States