Is paper better than plastic?

FOOD FOR THOUGHT - Chit U. Juan - The Philippine Star

I drink my favorite fruit tea from a paper cup rather than its usual plastic container if I had bought it outside Makati. You must remember that Makati city banned restaurants from using plastic cups, styrofoam containers and cups in all establishments many years ago. But is paper really the way to solve this plastic problem? Or is waxed paper (like those used in cold drinks) yet another problem?

I attended our Management Association of the Philippines (www.map.ph) seminar lecture on solid waste management and I was surprised with the facts laid out by our speaker, Crispian Lao, from the Philippine Alliance for Recycling and Material Sustainability. My Aha! moment? Apparently waxed paper cups and containers cannot be recycled in this country. The same goes for pizza carton boxes smeared with oil or grease or any food container that has a wax lining. Now that is news to me. All along I thought everything paper was eco-friendlier until I heard this declaration.

On paper bags, most paper bags are recyclable so I am happy that we have been using old magazine pages to make our own paper bags at our retail store/social enterprise. We have, for 16 years, never ordered plastic bags when they were still allowed in Makati and also never switched to microfiber bags. We simply use recyclable coated magazine paper to make paper bags.

After listening to Mr. Lao, I now would like local government units (LGUs) to look into their city ordinances so they can update the same. Maybe plastic or styrofoam can again be used instead of waxed paper as the latter will also apparently end up in a landfill. This negates the initial idea that all paper is good. I believe we need to find out from manufacturers of containers what recycling facilities are available for packaging materials they sell to us.

I used to sell a lot of brewed coffee in imported disposable paper cups as they had to be insulated enough for hot drinks and no local versions were yet available. Today, with coffee shops spreading like mushrooms, you can imagine how much paper cups are used for take out or to-go orders.

In other countries, regular coffee drinkers bring a “sippy” cup or a reusable insulated container when they order hot drinks. This is a practice we must start in the country to reduce the use of paper cups. I now see water bottles being used by many because prices have come down for insulated water containers to keep our hydration liquids cold. This is a good trend to start also for hot drinks. And the best, of course, is to use washable cups and saucers as this will surely reduce the use of waxed paper cups. I see some quick service restaurants (QSRs) that now offer metal washable spoons and forks and washable melamine plates. It is only for take out or to-go orders that paper comes into play.

Maybe it’s high time for local executives to study their outdated ordinances and invite solid waste management practitioners to show them the updated availability of recycling facilities. We may shoot ourselves in the foot if we keep our local laws without consulting experts in garbage reduction, recycling or think about having a proper materials recovery facility or MRF.

I am thankful that MAP opened our eyes to these realities. Plastic may not be all that bad and paper may not be as good as we think it is, generally speaking.

Because of the reduced use of plastic, many manufacturers have closed down and moved on to new businesses. Paper mills are now very few because they cannot find suitable recyclable paper waste to feed their mills. Again, they are not able to use greasy paper or waxed paper. Further, if no waste segregation takes place, they will not find enough usable paper for their use. And the paper (which we thought would solve our plastic problems) will end up in landfills and not in recycling plants. It was not as simple as shifting from plastic to paper. We need to know what paper mills can use in terms of waste paper and which plastic material can be given new life as a bucket or plastic jerry cans.

So what do we need to do?

1. Segregate waste paper for paper mills to reuse and recycle

2. Study local ordinances to update them in solid waste management

3. Use reusable containers every chance we get

4. Be aware of numbers and letters on plastic containers so we will know its stage in the recycling cycle.

Only then can we properly address the use of plastic and paper with proper knowledge about reusing, reducing and recycling.

As online transactions increase and ordering from e-commerce merchants become the norm, we also have to be conscious about disposing of the protective bubble wrap that comes with each delivery. We need to avoid having them at landfills by separating them as soon as we receive packages and disposing of them at collection centers for plastic. It is a small task to set aside these bubble wraps, because they are very much recyclable if separated as “clean” and not mixed with wet or other unidentifiable garbage. We can start at home and spread awareness in our offices or places of work.

Our final suggestions for a plastic-free future is to buy quality instead of quantity. This means avoiding fast fashion and instead choosing fabrics that are natural, not synthetic. This also means learning to buy products we can recycle and reuse. And for manufacturers, they must design for the future, for long time use and not for a fast buck.

There is so much to learn about plastics and paper. And this may just be the start of your Aha! moment.

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