Recently I went on a hiking trip with a friend in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. I hadn’t been on that particular trail since I was 16 years old. I kept saying that I remembered the trees being bigger and more of them. My friend said it was just my memory embellishing the forest across 43 years. We do have a tendency to remember things being bigger/better from childhood, but I was pretty certain of what I remembered from 1969.
After the hike we went to a place called Newfound Gap where we found information posted by the park service about what’s killing the trees. Insects and sulfides from air pollution in the Ohio Valley over the past 40 years were responsible. On our hike, trees were fallen like Paul Bunyan’s cord wood, and those that had not fallen yet were standing dead. While it proved to me that my memory is still good, it was not good news for the forest.
We now can see the effects of disease, infestation and pollution even within our protected reserves. We want to practice conservation in many areas, including packaging, which is something I have personal knowledge of.
Paper is winning the political battle because it degrades if tossed on the roadside. But the amount of resources and energy used to produce it, and even to recycle it, is often overlooked, as is the amount of waste products created. US paper mills, while better regulated than Asian mills, are a dying breed; and with more US and Canadian mills closing each year, more paper is imported from mills without an agency like the EPA monitoring them.
American Polyethylene (“plastic”) has a much smaller environmental impact than paper. All you have to do is compare 1,000 bags of paper and plastic bags size for size to see the difference. Recycled polyethylene is identical to new resin at the molecular level, whereas recycled paper will degrade over time, due to its dependency on the long fibers of virgin paper to provide tear strength. Polyethylene can be recycled an unlimited number of times; paper cannot.
No sulfides, bleaches, or large amounts of water or energy are needed to recycle polyethylene. Domestic polyethylene virgin resin is made from a byproduct of North American natural gas (not from foreign oil, as some would have you believe). That said, import plastics from Asia are indeed made from oil sourced from many places not friendly to Americans (natural gas is not as available across the globe as it is in the US and Canada).
I am not saying that if you use paper bags you will contribute to the demise of our forests. The forest industry in North America and in particular the US is smart, efficient and very well managed. American forest products used for paper production are sustainable, adsorb pollution, create habitat and are a renewable resource. But my point here is that polyethylene is also sustainable, smart, well managed and renewable.
Paper and plastic which are made in the US are both good choices for packaging for different reasons, and neither deserves to be villainized, banned or taxed by so many local municipalities at the expense of the people who live, work and shop there. If we tax anything, let’s put import duties on polyethylene and paper products from Asian countries that do not manufacture to the same US environmental standards and do not have agencies like the EPA and FSC.
Robby Meadows, President