Remember that time around the late 90s, early-2000s when everyone was saying, “Save a tree, use plastic!” Now the tables have turned and many are saying that to save the ocean, use paper! But there’s a third, better option, and that’s not using either. The best answer to “paper or plastic” is actually “neither.” Followed by, “I don’t need it,” or, “I brought my own.”
Replacing one single-use product with another does not address the underlying problem that is our throwaway culture. And until we address that, we will always have a waste problem.
Disposable products are designed to be wasteful. But we can design out waste and break an endless consumption cycle by reducing and refusing single-use products and switching to quality reusables.
But what about recycling, you ask? Well, remember the full saying, “reduce, reuse, recycle.” Recycling comes last for a reason because the best waste management method is not needing to manage waste at all, but simply reduce the amount of waste we create in the first place.
That’s why we’ve created this guide of common, single-use paper products to help you identify sources of paper waste in your life. You may be surprised to learn that contrary to popular belief, many of these items aren’t actually recyclable,
To tackle this guide, we suggest starting with one item and learning about its effects. Then, focus on reducing and eliminating it from your life. After you master that one, pick another, and then another, and then another!
We’ll start off with the actual item in question when we’re usually asked, “paper or plastic?” And while we’re mainly addressing paper grocery bags, don’t forget about all those brown paper bag lunches!
A paper bag’s brown, rough texture can lead you to believe that they’re made of recycled paper and therefore eco-friendly, but most new paper grocery bags are made from virgin pulp for better strength. Virgin pulp, which comes from fresh, wood chipped trees, has longer fibers than recycled paper pulp. The longer fibers lends the paper bag the strength it needs to carry your food.
In 1999, 14 million trees were cut to produce the 10 billion paper grocery bags used by Americans in that year alone. 10 billion paper bags in one year... and this was in 1999! While trees can be considered a renewable resource, you can’t help but imagine the literal forests that are being cut down to produce these bags today. Forests that could be absorbing greenhouse gases on land that could be housing wildlife and thriving ecosystems.
Then when you consider the subsequent energy used and greenhouse gases emitted from cutting down, manufacturing, and transporting paper bags, they start to look a lot less eco-friendly than their plastic opponent.
And that’s because they are. It takes 4 times as much energy to manufacture a paper bag as it does to manufacture a plastic bag. Many chemicals, like chlorine and sulfur, are also used to transform wood chips from pulp to paper bags. Overall, manufacturing paper bags generates 70 percent more air and 50 times more water pollutants than manufacturing plastic bags.
Point being, paper bags are not a sustainable alternative to plastic bags. But plastic bags are not a sustainable solution either due to their proclivity to persistently pollute our earth.
The best option is to choose neither and rather:
REFUSE: If you’re only getting a few items, forgo the bag and carry them!
REUSE: For larger hauls, you’ll want to invest in a set of reusable grocery bags made from either cotton or recycled plastic (to support the value of recycled commodities). But remember, reusables need to be reused. An organic cotton tote bag needs to be reused 149 times before it can be considered better for our earth than a plastic bag. This is because of the resources that go into farming cotton and manufacturing the bag are greater than what goes into the making of a plastic bag. But the benefit of reusing tote for years and years to come will eventually outweigh the impact of hundreds of wasted plastic bags polluting our environment.
REDUCE: Better yet, reduce the need for new things to be produced and use old bags you already have, thrift and buy used tote bags, or even get crafty and repurpose t-shirts into bags or pull from your stockpile and weave plastic bags into a bigger tote bag.
Paper Cups, Plates and Bowls
It’s estimated that 50 billion paper coffee cups are thrown away in the United States every year. In 2006 alone, Starbucks cited using 2.3 billion cups in their stores. Those 2.3 billion cups consumed 136,789 tons of wood from 944,211 trees, 702 billion BTUs of energy (the equivalent of powering 7,747 homes), and 569 million gallons of water (enough to fill 859 Olympic sized swimming pools), all to eventually create 36 million pounds of waste.
Most paper products are coated with plastic to improve wet strength and grease resistance. For example, paper cups are lined with a polyethelynee plastic to keep your drink on the inside of the cup. Similarly, milk and juice cartons are also plastic-lined paper products.
This plastic coating cannot be separated from the paper in the recycling process, rendering these kinds of plastic-coated paper products unrecyclable. These kinds of products will also be soiled with leftover food, drink, and grease, which can’t be separated from the paper fibers in the recycling process either.
If you try to recycle paper products contaminated with food and drink, you’ll contaminate the batch. And when a batch’s contamination rate is too high, it’ll be more cost-effective for the recycling facility to ditch the batch entirely and send it to a landfill rather than try to salvage the good recyclables.
So instead of trying to recycle contaminated products, you can compost food-soiled paper products, including that greasy pizza box. Though you wouldn’t want to compost plastic-lined paper products because, in the environment, the plastic will break up into thousands of microplastics and mix with your compost.
Rather than take waste management into your own hands and into your backyard, you should:
REFUSE: Say no to single-use paper products, both at home and you’re out and about. To help you do this and enable you to say “no” to single-use, you may need some reusables in your arsenal.
REUSE: At home, you can use your real plates, bowls, cups and mugs! If you don’t have any, invest in a set that will last you a very, very long time. It may be a higher cost upfront, but since you won’t be continuously buying packs of disposables, you’ll be saving money in the long run.
When you’re out and about, you can ask if they have any for-here serveware. If they don’t, be sure to let them know that you wish they did. Start making a mental note of places that do and do not have reusable serveware and avoid the places that only serve customers with single-use products.
You can also try bringing your own reusables. For example, Starbucks allows you to bring your own personal cup, and it doesn’t even have to be a Starbucks branded cup! Not only will you save 10 cents, but you’ll save a cup, lid, and sleeve from being waste. For smaller, local establishments, you’ll have to check on their personal item policy. If they don’t have one that allows you to bring a reusable cup or even takeout container, be sure to email them requesting that they implement one!
REDUCE: Lastly, don’t forget about the water and energy needed to wash your real cups, plates, and bowls. While it’s less than the amount needed to manufacture their disposable counterparts, it’s still a resource we often forget to value. For most of us, the most efficient way to wash our dirty dishes will be with a fully loaded dishwasher.
Paper Towels and Napkins
Every year, the United States uses more than 13 billion pounds of paper towels. If we worked together and each U.S. household used one less 70-sheet roll of paper towels, 554,000 trees could be saved every year. And if we used three fewer rolls per year, we could eliminate 120,000 tons of waste!
Paper towels and napkins are the downcycled product of recycled paper. In other words, most paper towels and napkins are made with recycled paper, which sounds great, but unfortunately, this means that this is the last stop on the paper pulp’s journey.
When we think of recycling, we often think of one bottle being turned into another bottle or one sheet of paper into another, but that’s hardly the case. Most of the material is downcycled into something of lesser quality, for example, plastic bottles turn into plastic furniture and plastic roads.
Paper recycling is similar in that the recycling process shortens the fibers, and shorter fibers mean less strength and quality for the finished paper product. Paper towels and napkins can’t be recycled because their fibers are too short to be recycled and used in anything else.
Used paper towels and napkins also pose a contamination risk to the entire batch of recycling when they’re soiled with food and grease. So don’t try to recycle them, rather, compost them! Just make sure they’re of the unbleached, chlorine-free variety and that they haven’t been used with any chemicals that could poison your compost.
REDUCE: Don’t just arbitrarily grab for as many paper towels and napkins as you feel like. You may be surprised by how effective one paper towel can be. With a few shakes of your hand, you could dry your hands with one paper towel, and not five.
REFUSE: Don’t use paper towels or napkins unless you absolutely have to. If you have a mess, reach for something reusable and washable!
REUSE: Instead of single-use, have a pack of reusable towels, cloths, and rags at the ready to take the place of paper towels and napkins. Once they’re dirty, simply throw them in the wash with the rest of your laundry.
Paper Straws and Stirrers
As paper straws continue to emerge in stores and restaurants as “eco-friendly” alternatives to plastic straws, we can’t help but recognize it as a small win against plastic but a loss at addressing our throwaway culture.
There’s a reason we switched from paper straws to plastic ones a few decades ago. One common problem with paper straws is that they are ineffective, they disintegrate before your very lips! Now, you may see people reaching for a second or third paper straw to finish their drink.
And other than the fact that no one likes extra pulp in their drink, soggy paper straws present a choking hazard to the elderly and people with disabilities.
It doesn’t matter that paper straws are biodegradable or compostable, the problem with paper straws and stirrers is that they are still single-use waste that will end up in the landfill. Unless there is a specific basket for used paper straws to be deposited so that they can be sent to a proper composting facility, they will most likely be tossed with the plastic cup they came in. In a landfill, they won’t degrade because nothing ever completely degrades in a landfill.
We probably sound like a broken record by now, but just say no to single-use! If you don’t need a straw, refuse to use one.
But if you want to suck, suck responsibly and use a reusable straw if that is how you would prefer to consume your drink.
Stationery & Office Supplies
Notebooks, writing pads, printer paper, envelopes, index cards, greeting cards, and wrapping paper all have to come from somewhere. 40 percent of the world’s commercially cut timber is used for the production of paper, which is more than 30 million acres of forest, destroyed annually. Pulp and paper is the third-largest industrial polluter to air, water, and land in the United States, and studies show that it releases well over 100 million kg of toxic pollution each year.
And while everything seems to be on a screen these days, paper consumption is still steadily increasing across the world.
Choosing to use paper products, for most of us, is a preference. There is a rare minority that must use paper for their job. So at the end of the day, you need to ask yourself if you care more about writing something down on a piece of paper than saving the earth a few trees.
REFUSE: Simply enough, you can refuse to waste paper. Ask yourself, do you really need to print that, or does a digital copy suffice? Do you really need to write that down, or does a digital note work just fine? Do you really need to wrap that gift in fancy wrapping paper, or would an old newspaper be crafty enough? More often than not you can avoid using paper with something digital.
REUSE: This one may take a little creativity, but try to reuse paper in more ways than just scrap paper. For example, an old newspaper can turn into wrapping paper.
REDUCE: If you absolutely must write something down, only buy 100% post-consumer recycled paper products in order to support the recycled paper commodity value. And use each sheet wisely! There are two sides to every paper and a preview tool before every print, use ‘em.
This one goes out to CVS and every other store and restaurant out there that automatically gives you a receipt… but especially CVS. Seriously, no one is competing for the title of “World’s Longest Receipt” except you.
Anyway, paper receipt production in the United States uses an estimated 12.4 million trees, 13.2 billion gallons of water, and emits 4 billion pounds of CO2 each year. But they’re not made with just any type of paper. The majority of receipts are made with thermal paper so that they can be printed on using heat rather than old-fashioned ink.
94 percent of thermal paper receipts contain the chemical bisphenol A (BPA) because of its stability and heat-resistant properties. BPA is a chemical that is considered to be an endocrine disruptor and have harmful health effects. People who often are in contact with BPA coated receipts, i.e. cashiers, have a higher level of BPA in their bodies than people with average contact as BPA can transfer to the skin in small amounts.
So while technically recyclable, receipts shouldn’t be recycled. When mixed in with the paper pulp, the BPA from the receipts contaminates the recycled paper napkins, toilet paper, food packaging and other paper products that come out of the recycling process. You also shouldn’t compost them, because the BPA can leach into the groundwater, or burn them, because this releases BPA into the air.
REFUSE: In general, we should be avoiding and getting rid of the practice of using paper receipts, especially thermal paper ones, in favor of their safer, digital alternatives.
REDUCE: If you need a receipt, opt for a digital version sent to your email. And if you don’t want to give them your personal email address, make a separate email just for receipts and marketing emails.
If your job requires paper receipts for expense reporting, work to change the system. If your favorite (or just frequented) store or restaurant automatically gives you a receipt, work to change the system. Something simple you can do is send them a quick email, subject line: No More Automatic Receipts Please. Feel free to use this template, we recommend customizing and personalizing it to directly address your store or restaurant.
“I am one of your valued customers and I want you to stop wasting paper by automatically printing receipts. Rather, give me the option to 1) refuse the receipt and prevent the printing of one at self-checkout terminals or verbally to your cashiers, 2) have receipts emailed and 3) allow emailed receipts to act as valid proof of purchase for returns when showed on my smartphone.”
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn’t Read)
In short, single-use products foster a throwaway culture and a society centered around convenience and consumption. It doesn’t matter if they’re paper or plastic products. We can’t continue replacing one single-use item with another if we are to see our waste pollution levels decrease.
Recycling is not a practical or effective waste management method and should be seen as a last-ditch effort to do something with your trash.
The simplest way you can reduce your waste is to refuse and no to single-use paper products. If you don’t need it, don’t take it, buy it, or use it!
If you do need it, invest in reusable items to replace single-use paper products. For example, a washable cloth instead of paper towels or a reusable tumbler instead of a disposable coffee cup.
If you must use a paper product, reduce how much you use. Don’t just arbitrarily grab a bunch until you feel like you have enough.
When you absolutely must buy paper products, look for 100% post-consumer recycled paper to support the value of recycled commodities.