If you are an avid recycler, you probably have been asked at least once if you would rather have plastic bags or plastic trash bags.
While it is easy to avoid using plastic bags and trash bags in your daily life, there are ways to reduce the amount of plastic waste in the environment.
A new study conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, released Monday, finds that using disposable packaging is actually more environmentally friendly than using plastic.
“We know that plastic bags are more harmful to the environment than plastic trash and paper bags combined,” said Mark Henson, a postdoctoral research associate in UW-Madison’s Department of Biological and Environmental Engineering.
“But there are a lot of ways to recycle them.”
Researchers from the UW-Milwaukee Center for Sustainable Resource Engineering used data collected from more than 4,000 people to develop a new method to determine which types of plastics are more environmentally beneficial to the world.
The method, called the “tissue weight” approach, uses a mathematical model to determine the environmental impact of various materials.
Researchers used this information to determine that plastic waste is about 2.2 times more damaging to the planet than paper waste, but paper waste is nearly three times more harmful than plastic waste.
According to Henson’s study, plastic waste accounts for more than 40 percent of the world’s plastic waste, and it accounts for 80 percent of all plastic pollution.
The plastic waste that is discarded is usually discarded in landfills, which has the potential to release pollutants such as benzene, nitrates and other toxic chemicals into the air.
Plastic bags, Henson said, have been a huge contributor to these pollution problems.
“People have been collecting plastic bags for years.
They’re actually quite durable, but they also have a lot more impact on the environment,” Henson told ABC News.
The researchers found that the most environmentally harmful plastic waste products were paper bags and plastic trash, which together accounted for about 65 percent of total plastic waste produced in the U.S. According to Hinson, the researchers used this data to determine how much of these materials are recycled, and that recycling rates are higher for paper than plastic bags.
“The paper bag industry has made some significant progress in recent years in terms of its waste reduction efforts,” Hinson said.
“Paper bags are recycled at a rate of almost 2 million bags a year, compared to around 100,000 bags a day for the plastic bag industry.”
Henson said that the paper bag recycling rate was lower in 2010, and the plastic bags were recycled at much higher rates in 2013 and 2014.
The paper bags that are recycled tend to be heavier and more compact than the plastic trash that is collected, which is why the researchers calculated that the plastic garbage is twice as harmful as the paper bags.
However, the plastic waste industry has been working on reducing the amount that it throws out, and plastic bags have not been eliminated completely.
Henson hopes to see a similar reduction in the amount it throws away.
“I think we have some great progress on reducing plastic waste and it could be the reason that the industry is moving to use plastic bags in their products,” he said.
The research was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.