×

Because the paper bag has to be 4-10 times heavier than a plastic bag to carry the same weight, when that paper bag ends up in a landfill, it produces more methane.

Wait, Plastic Bags Are Better Than Paper? At TED, Leyla Acaroglu Addresses "Environmental Folklore"

The problems don't end with grocery bags.

At the supermarket check-out line, paper or plastic seems like a simple question. But as sustainability strategist Leyla Acaroglu showed in her TED talk Wednesday, it's actually extremely complex.

When it comes to the right grocery bag, paper is often thought of as the greener choice. This intuition is part of what Acaroglu calls "environmental folklore." But what's more important than thinking about what is more natural, or even more biodegradable, Acaroglu says, is thinking about where it will end up--namely, a landfill.

"Functionality defines environmental impact," Acaroglu said. And because the paper bag has to be 4-10 times heavier than a plastic bag to carry the same weight, when that paper bag ends up in a landfill, it produces more methane.

The problem, of course, doesn't end with grocery bags. Take refrigerators, which aren't designed to preserve food as efficiently as they could be--and are growing in size.



Or electric tea kettles, which waste energy by boiling more water than necessary. The energy use involved with one day of this extra water boiling in the U.K.--where 97% of households own such a device--could power streetlights in London for an entire night, Acaroglu notes.

The solution isn't just about greener production or using natural materials. As director of Eco Innovators, Acaroglu helps companies figure out how to rethink the way their products are used and then discarded.

"Consumption is the biggest problem," Acaroglu said. "But design is one of the best solutions."

At TED, Acaroglu called for pioneers to create products by thinking in fresher terms about issues of sustainability. Our very future depends on it.

[Images: Flickr user Wetsun, TED Conference on Flickr.]

Add New Comment

8 Comments

  • Henrietta

    "Consumption is the biggest problem," Acaroglu said. "But design is one of the best solutions."

    This is a great statement - so true.

    We
    need to start reusing plastic bags and then recycling them once they
    break. Then the perception that paper bags are more eco-friendly will be undermined.

    This is another article supporting Leyla's theory:
    http://www.theprintedbagshop.c...

  • Henrietta

    "Consumption is the biggest problem," Acaroglu said. "But design is one of the best solutions."

    This is a great statement - so true.

    We need to start reusing plastic bags and then recycling them once they break. Then the perception that paper bags are more eco friendly will be underminded.

    This is another article supporting Leyla's theory: http://www.theprintedbagshop.c...

  • james pisano

    I believe every ounce of plastic ever produced, still exists cause the earth can't absorb it, although it may get broken into smaller pieces. if this is true, I fail to see how this isn't "cut and dry." Anyway, the question frames the issue poorly as a better solution seems a reusable bag made of something biodegradable. 

  • Leyla Acaroglu

    And that is exactly what I said in
    my talk James! Its hard when only a short synopis is displayed without the entire argument that I make. I actually said that reusability is far better than
    disposability and that’s why we need closed loop systems. I was simply using
    this example of paper vs plastic to demonstrate environmental
    folklore and the need to think across the life of everything that we create to avoid
    mitigating environmental impacts to somewhere else. Realistically if we had
    full recycling then plastic is better as it can be recycled over and over again
    whereas paper can
    only be roughly recycled 5 times until the fibres disintegrate into nothing. Also in the cases where you purchase bags for your trash can, it is better is your replace these with a plastic shopping bag (as long as its made from HDPE). 

  • tom

    does saying that plastic is "better" for the environment than paper suggest that plastic is good for the environment? maybe not but that's how Life Cycle Assessment has been used for greenwash and spin. there may be a logical fallacy in the statement and this is compounded by the limitations of the methods used to arrive at the statement. 

  • Leyla

    The point is that things are more complicated then simple solutions. The argument is that we need a diversity of options based on analysis of the entire system - not just end of life in order to address sustainability. I know that LCA just like anything else has been used to greenwash but it has also provided us with scientific evidence that allows us to explore new and viable options that actually have a net environmental gain! I do not argue for plastic to be used, I simply explain that we need to challenge our environmental folklore when making important decisions. 

  • Mrwassman

    I hear you on that. The plastic isn't going to be converted into methane any time soon. This article is almost useless. Garbage=Methane=Fuel. Plastic bags should be melted and put back into service in some way.