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Paper or Plastic Bags – an Ongoing Discussion

Paper or Plastic

Photo credit: alexander-schimmeck

If you google the phrase above, you will find a myriad of articles discussing the various impacts and benefits of paper or plastic groceries bags dating back to at least 2017. Most articles quote the energy and water needed to produce a bag (it is generally stated that paper bags need more), transport emissions (paper bags are heavier), the number of times a bag is used and how efficient it can be recycled. Some also mention that paper bags require trees to be cut down, but I have not yet found one that claims a benefit, because trees are planted to supply the wood. The decomposition of paper bags in landfill produces a lot of greenhouse gasses as well. Most studies do not consider the effect of litter but some claim that plastic bags can stay in the natural environment for up to 1,000 years.

All these discussions aside, plastic bags have a bad reputation and paper bags “feel” greener. The latter are made of a product that can be decomposed in the natural environment. This seems to be the overriding factor in public opinion and in New Zealand we have seen a significant shift from plastic bag use to paper bag use over the last 5 years.

The above-mentioned example illustrates that environmental solutions are not always clear cut, and that climate change mitigation is a complex problem where one seemingly good solution might invertedly trigger another process, thereby minimizing or even overturning its desired effects.

We have written before about complex versus complicated problems. Complicated problems are hard to solve, but you can follow processes, methods, rules, and algorithms to address them. Complex problems involve too many unknowns and too many interrelated factors to reduce to rules and processes. Climate change is a complex problem: the solution is not just decarbonisation or refusing plastic bags, but about sustainably living within our planet’s boundaries.

That makes it hard for organisations to engage in climate action. How do you bridge the gap between science and business? What can you practically do?

One clear example: If you can improve productivity of your manufacturing facility, i.e., using less resources for the same output, you will be eliminating waste products and reducing energy consumption, which is a winner for both the global environment as well as your bottom line.

Understanding your end-to-end value stream and placing the productivity improvement lens over it will not only reduce your negative impact on our planet but will bolster your P&L and Balance Sheet too.

I would love to connect with you and discus how productivity improvement and climate action can go hand in hand and what this could mean for you and your organisation.

About the author: Liddy Bakker is the Productivity Improvement and Climate Action Specialist at Productivity People