Paper Bags Are Not Better Than Plastic Bags

By Anupum Pant

Plastic bags are terrible things. They choke animals, aren’t easy to recycle, do not break down, pollute our oceans, their production adds to our oil demands…and the list goes on. Some time back, we realized their ill effects and started taking steps that would encourage people to use bags made of alternative materials. Furthermore, several cities all over the world have banned the use of plastic bags.

Side Note: Interestingly, plastic bags aren’t actually banned for any of those reasons. They are banned because they tend to fly with the wind and move out of your trash fairly easily. They create a mess at places where they aren’t supposed to. That is the major reason as to why they are being banned.

In 2007, San Francisco banned plastic bags for supermarkets and pharmacies. Last year, it got expanded to all retail stores. Now, they have been banned for restaurant takeaways too. Also, the use of plastic bags at retail stores has been banned in several Indian cities. But the point isn’t to list out all the cities where it has been banned. There are many cities. I hope you get the idea…

When it comes to finding an alternative for plastic bags, paper bags seem to be the first choice. But it turns out, paper bags are not better than plastic bags.  Most of us underestimate their ill effects. Here are a few reasons that will make you realize why paper bags are not so good:

The point isn’t to make paper bags look bad or to make plastic look good or vice versa. It is to dispel the image of “the green paper bag” from our minds.

Reasons

Production: Production of paper bags all over the world involves cutting down 14 million trees every year. It is estimated that the production of paper bags creates 70 % more air pollution than plastic bag production.
Production of paper bags also results in much more water getting polluted when compared to the production of plastic bags. This is because their manufacturing process requires a lot of water.
Almost the same amount of petroleum used for plastic bags (for the material) gets consumed in making of paper bags to fuel the machines plus transportation.

Weight: Paper weighs a lot more than plastic. It is estimated that to carry the same number of paper bags it takes 7 times the transportation it takes to haul plastic bags. More trucks, more pollution, greater greenhouse impact.

Space: Paper bags occupy a lot more space than plastic bags do. This creates a problem at landfills that are getting filled to the brim already.

Recycling: Paper bag activists would say, plastic bags live for ever in the landfills. Yes they do, but there, paper bags do not decompose within a meaningful time period either. In fact, most of the stuff lives on for a long time in landfills. Landfills aren’t meant to make things degrade. With a paucity of oxygen and water in landfills, it is hard for things to decompose there. Even food items thrown away at landfills last for years.
That said, even plastic bags are almost never recycled.

Also they tear easily. As a result, more number of paper bags have to be used.

Solution

Both of them – plastic and paper bags – are equally bad. Recently developed biodegradable plastic bags are not any good either (they have a bigger carbon footprint). Carrying canvas, cloth or jute bags and saving them for future use is probably the best alternative.

If you liked this, you’ll probably also like – Understanding the Impending Helium Crisis

The Red Rain of Kerala

By Anupum Pant

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In the year 2001, between 25th July and 25th September, people from the Indian state of Kerela (Kottayam and Idukki districts) experienced a bizarre oddity – The Red Rain of Kerala. Sporadic heavy downpours of mysteriously colored water left the people of Kerala dazed. More recently, red rains were also seen in parts of Sri Lanka between 15th November and 27th December, 2012.

Yellow, Black and Green rains have also been reported several times since 1896.

Red Rain of Kerala – Studies

A study conducted in India showed that the rain was colored because these raindrops contained millions of spherical and oval red particles which had an internal structure. These things looked like biological cells. Initially, when scientists weren’t able to confirm the existence of DNA (a fact which has baffled scientists) in them, in spite of an internal structure present in the cells, some started claiming that the origin of these red particles was extraterrestrial, possibly, coming from an exploded meteor.

Later the mystery was solved, the presence of DNA was confirmed and a study, destroying popular media claims, concluded that the red rain of Kerala had been colored due to airborne spores originating from a type of algae. There was nothing alien about it.

The unusual color of the rain was due to the presence of a unicellular micro-organism belonging to Kingdom Protista, of the Phylum Euglenozoa, known as Trachelomonas. Trachelomonas was the main cause of reddish downpours in other regions of the world as well.

[Source: The Red Rain of Kerala]

The Standard World Map is Misleading

by Anupum Pant

Mercator’s projection

Most of us have this image of the world in our minds. This kind of a map, today printed in almost every textbook, known as the Mercator’s projection was first created to make work easy for navigators. Even Google Maps uses a Mercator-derived technique to project the world on a flat surface. But, Mercator’s projection has only deceived our idea of geographical area for all these years. For instance, it has led us into believing that Greenland covers an area which is almost equal to Africa (Also, have a look at the size of Antarctica there. Gosh!). The comparison of these two land masses actually looks like this.

According to this infographic, the actual size of Africa is larger than US, China, India, Mexico, Peru, France, Spain, Papua New Guinea, Sweden, Japan, Germany, Norway, Italy, New Zealand, the UK, Nepal, Bangladesh and Greece, all of them put together. In short, Africa is around 14 times larger than Greenland. Do not underestimate its area.

You can try playing with various combinations on this web app – map fight. Try these: Australia vs. Antarctica; US (contiguous) vs. Russia; and of course Greenland vs. Africa; they’ll leave you spellbound.

Why does this happen?

Since our planet is a sphere (an oblate ellipsoid really), to project it on a flat surface like paper, the actual shapes and sizes of landmasses have to be distorted to some extent. There is no way around it. Today, hundreds of different projection methods meant for various purposes are available, but none of them can exactly show the actual shapes & sizes of the landmasses. Some preserve the shape, some preserves the size, and others preserve direction…so on…

Mercator’s projection, the devious one discussed above, for example, uses a cylindrical projection. That means, it stretches the areas on a globe, which are nearer to the poles. Hence, the imprecise size of Greenland and Antarctica.

What is a perfect map, then?

Even after developing hundreds of projection method, we haven’t been able to spot the perfect method, nor will it happen in the future. But, to get the right sense of area, a projection method known as the Peters (also known as Gall-Peters projection) projection, is said to be the most accurate (in terms of area). It is also one of the most controversial maps.

Peter’s projection also has a huge fan following in spite of its terrible appearance.

Bonus Map Facts:

  1. National Geographic started using the, good looking, Robinson projection from the year 1988, and used it for ten years, then, it moved to the Winkel-Tripel in 1998.
  2. An ideal Mercator’s projection would have infinite height if it doesn’t truncate some area near the extreme poles.
  3. Peters pointed that the Mercator’s projection made developing countries seem much smaller than they actually are. He said that these errors made the struggles of developing nations near the equator looks much smaller to the developed world.
  4. XKCD published a comic on projections – “What your favorite map projection says about you.” 977. [see the explanation here]