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Why I Choose Paper Over Plastic

“Paper or Plastic?” Are you ready to answer this question? Perhaps, you choose on a whim, or by which looks more likely to make it to your dorm without bursting under the weight of your groceries. Maybe, you even make an informed environmentally friendly choice, but whether that is paper or plastic is controversial. I choose paper and I will tell you why. Hint: it's great for our forests, and forests are great for our air and water quality. 


First, let's look at the main concerns of each product. Plastic bags, while used briefly by us, can last for 500 years or more in a landfill, and even then do not fully decompose but rather continue to pollute the environment. In the event a plastic bag takes a detour on the way to the landfill and ends up in the ocean, it may contribute to the 100,000 marine deaths caused by plastic bags annually.

At first glance, paper bags aren’t much better of an option. The creation of paper bags requires wood fiber from cutting down trees. Recycled paper products can be reused in the process, and while in 2015 Americans recycled 66% of their paper and products, compared to 9% of their plastics, this is still not enough to entirely supply the need for new paper products. An average 15-year-old tree can only make 700 paper bags, which a grocery store could use in just an hour. Alternatively, one living tree can absorb 48 pounds of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in the process of releasing oxygen.


Now for the good part. Roughly 14 million trees are harvested each year in the U.S. to make paper bags! Yes, I said this was the good part. More than half of the forest land in the U.S. is privately owned. Owning land comes with many financial responsibilities such as taxes. Using land in any way that isn’t profitable is essentially money down the drain for private landowners. If a landowner cannot make money by simply having trees growing on their property, then conversion of forestland to crop fields, or to be sold and turned into a blacktop parking lot for a nearby business becomes more financially responsible. This is why agriculture is the largest single cause of deforestation. For example, If the demand for soybean oil is higher than the demand for paper bags, soybean fields will replace forests. 

Colorado travel hiking mountains trees nature backpack trail high Cameron Smith / Her Campus Okay, even if landowners cut down their forests to sell to paper mills to make paper bags, they make money, doesn’t that still harm the forest? The answer: when forests are harvested responsibly then, no, harvesting improves forest health. Trees consume resources to survive like any other living thing, and when they are too close together they compete for resources. Some trees will triumph but many will die or become compromised allowing for the mass spread and infestation of pathogens and pests, and even increased risk of wildfiresThinning, or harvesting some of the trees in a forest to allow space for others combats these problems. This practice of thinning, usually performed on younger trees also results in the fiber that is typically used to make pulp for paper products


Lastly, we have the final harvest or clear-cut where all or most trees are removed from a forest to thank for the efficient carbon sequestration of younger trees. All trees indeed photosynthesize to create food for themselves. During this process, they absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen. However, just like most living things, trees need to eat the most when they are young and growing fast. Older trees actually sequester less carbon dioxide as their growth slows. That is why harvesting mature trees and replacing them with a new generation creates more oxygen! Being able to sell their harvested trees gives the landowner incentive to replant the forest for a future harvest.


woman holding grocery bag whole foods Photo by Lina Kivaka from Pexels I hope to keep our forests alive and well for many generations to come. Join me by choosing paper bags!