Bags — Paper vs. Plastic: Environmental Impact

What are the environmental impacts of paper versus plastic bags? Is one better than the other? What is the “greener” choice?

Raw Materials

  • Paper bags are made from a renewal resource—trees. This may be true; however, logging isn’t without its own environmental issues and it takes years to grow a new tree.
  • Plastic bags are made from nonrenewable fossil fuels—petroleum or natural gas.
  • Both paper and plastic bags can be made with recycled materials.

Energy and Water Use

  • Power PlantBoth plastic and paper bags use water and energy throughout their life cycle during extraction, production, transportation, and disposal.
  • Paper and plastic bag manufacturing require electricity. Power may be generated by a plant burning coal, petroleum, natural gas, or one that uses renewable energy like solar or wind power.
  • Paper bags are heavier and take up more space than plastic bags so fewer bags fit on a truck, translating into more fuel used to transport paper bags than plastic.

Pollution and Environmental Damage

  • Trees act as a carbon sink by removing the carbon from CO2 and storing it as cellulose in the trunk while releasing the oxygen back into the air. Cutting down forests depletes this and other benefits trees provide.
  • Accidents and spills from oil and natural gas extraction, refining, transportation, and distribution have already had far-reaching and catastrophic environmental impacts. There is no reason to believe this will not continue.
  • Some equipment, chemical compounds, and processes used to make paper and plastic bags are harmful and cause pollution.
  • Bags made from recycled materials may use fewer resources but recycling is not without environmental impact.

Waste and Recycling

  • Tree with Plastic Bags Hanging On itU.S. EPA statistics show that paper bags are recycled 5 times more than plastic bags.
  • Plastic bags made from corn or other biomaterials and Kraft type paper bags are compostable. If compostable plastic bags get mixed in with other plastic recycling, they may contaminate it.
  • Paper bags will biodegrade in nature, plastic bags will not. Birds, fish, and other wildlife may become entangled in or ingest plastic bags or parts of plastic bags.
  • Some municipalities’ efforts to ban single-use plastic bags are in part to mitigate the amount of time and money they spend dealing with plastic bag litter.

The Bottom Line

Both paper and plastic bags have an environmental impact. Is one “greener” than the other? It depends on whom you talk to or where you get your information, and how you interpret what you learn. Keep in mind comparisons can be tricky and sometimes confusing. For instance, one might need 1-3 plastic grocery bags to hold what fits in 1 paper grocery bag so bag-per-bag comparisons may be misleading.

Instead of debating paper versus plastic, perhaps we should look at other alternatives…a topic for another post.

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2012 London Olympics — Lasting Legacy

The Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) is the public body responsible for developing and building the venues and infrastructure for the 2012 London Olympic Games. The ODA’s priority themes included:

  1. Design and Accessibility
  2. Employment and Skills
  3. Equality and Inclusion
  4. Health, Safety and Security
  5. Sustainability
  6. Legacy

As I read the ODA’s priority themes, they all seemed worthy and important goals. The word legacy struck a chord and I wondered, “what does happen to the buildings and infrastructure after all the medals have been awarded, athletes and visitors have gone home, and life goes back to normal?” I decided to find out.

Investment in Tomorrow

75 pence of every £1 (100 pence per pound) that was spent went towards the long-term transformation of East London and the Lea River Valley. This includes world-class sports venues, open space, energy networks, waterways, roads and bridges, transportation links, thousands of homes, and education and healthcare facilities.

Environment and Sustainability

Ever since the 1994 Olympics held in Lillehammer, Norway, sustainability has played an increasingly important role in planning and staging the Olympic Games.

Prior to morphing into Olympic Park, the site in East London was derelict and polluted. Development of Olympic Park represented a huge opportunity to mitigate negative environmental impacts often caused by demolition and construction, and to rehabilitate the natural environment. A few highlights include:

  • Olympic Park Site - Before Photo1.4 million cubic meters of soil were cleaned using a green clean-up process involving 5 soil-washing machines.
  • 70,000 cubic meters of industrial and domestic waste were separated into piles of glass, metals, concrete and soil, and later reused on site or recycled off site.
  • 98% of materials generated from demolition were reused or recycled.
  • 100+ hectares of open space with parkland and wetlands were created or rehabilitated and will reduce the risk of flooding in the Lea River Valley and enrich the biodiversity of the area.

Learning Legacy

The ODA’s Learning Legacy project was created to capture and share knowledge learned from the construction of the Olympic Park. Anyone with an Internet connection can benefit from lessons learned, innovations, best practices, research, and case studies.

Sustainable Event Management

A legacy of London 2012 is a global standard for sustainable event management ISO 20121. The standard addresses sustainability before, during, and after an event. Social and economic interests are linked with environmental and sustainability aspects.

Lasting Legacy

The lasting legacy of the 2012 London Olympic Games is the transformation of a large section of East London and its potential for long-term growth and development for both community and business.

  • Velodrome and WetlandsThe Velodrome used green building materials and methods such as using natural light and ventilation to reduce energy use. Temperature and environmental conditions inside are set to create the world’s fastest cycling track making this a world-class venue that will continue to draw cycling competitors and enthusiasts.
  • Olympic Village will provide 2,818 new homes, for sale or rent, of which half will be affordable housing, along with new education and healthcare facilities.
  • New infrastructure including bridges, roads, transportation links, and pedestrian byways will facilitate getting around in the emerging community and connect it to the greater London area.
  • The Energy Center’s modular design facilitates adding capacity and new technology as the area grows and develops.
  • The flexibility and state of the art technology of the International Broadcast Center will be a draw for new businesses and jobs

London Legacy Development Corporation

The London Legacy Development Corporation is a public sector, not-for-profit organization that will be responsible for the long-term planning, development, management and maintenance of the Olympic Park and its facilities after the London 2012 Games.

There is a counter on their website counting down the days until Olympic Park will be handed over for its next phase of development. The first order of business — Olympic Park will be renamed Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

Olympic Stadium with Meadow Flowers



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