Paper or Plastic? Now I Am Confused!

When I was a young boy of perhaps 12 or 13, I was brand new in America for the first time and living in a less than perfect neighborhood in Baltimore, Maryland, with my grandparents who had come here with my grandfather's job. My grandmother, who had dual citizenship was born in the United States was very happy to be back for the first time since she was a little child, but my grandfather found the new routines and (what he saw as) unusual attitudes to be rather bothersome to his more traditional Indian values. To me it was just a wonderful adventureland full of magic and opportunity.

Because the area we lived in had one of the highest crime rates in a city already known for a high crime rate, Gamma and Gampa as I had called them from the time I could talk, would not allow me to wonder far from our small apartment. But on the corner below our building was a corner grocery owned by a man everyone called Mr. C. To this day I do not know what the C stood for, but he was a kind man who had immigrated to the United States from Poland and had worked his way up to owning his own store. Though it was a tiny shop in a big city, to me it seemed Mr. C was the most successful man in the world.

I wanted very much to earn money in America, but I was too young to actually hold any job that I could find. I always dreamed of living in a house in the suburbs and having a paperboy route, but alas, this never came to be. Mr. C, however, told me that though he could not hire me, he did not have to tell me to leave if I politely offered to carry bags for customers leaving the store. He was always emphasizing "politely" so that it was understood I could not be rude if I wanted to earn money in his store. Mr. C explained to me about tipping and soon I had a steady source of income.

After a few weeks of carrying bags, Mr. C let me start bagging the groceries for him while he rung up the customers. He paid me $1 for each bag of groceries plus I was still earning tips. I learned to ask each customer before bagging, "Would you like paper or plastic?" Many customers would say paper and after I would return to the store, Mr. C would say too many Americans take the forests for granted and soon the trees would all be gone if more people did not switch to plastic which could be recycled.

For years after working for Mr. C I would remember his words and always tried to use as little paper as possible and recycle whenever I could. It seemed pretty simple. We cannot grow trees fast enough to use them at the speed we did, so it is better to use plastic which can be recycled and reused. Thus we keep more trees and make the world a better, greener place. But then today, I go to get a chicken sandwich and see this statement on a KFC advertisement:

"By 2011, KFC will reduce its use of foam by 62% and total plastic use by 17%."

It went on to say the restaurant chain is replacing the plastic plates it has been using with paper serving boxes to reduce the amount of plastic they use. Now, we all know Styrofoam is bad and getting rid of as much as possible is good. But when did things change so that now paper is better than plastic? Did we suddenly have a burst of accelerated tree growth? Or did plastic somehow become non-recyclable? I was very confused!

After looking into this mystery, what I found was a bit disturbing from an environmental point of view. There seems to be a good bit of debate regarding the use of plastic versus the use of paper. While it is true that paper uses trees, creates a lot of pollution in its production and contributes to the abundance of landfill material in the United States, this is all also true of plastic except that it does not use trees as its source.

I searched and searched trying to find reliable information regarding recycling efforts, but everything you read even from supposedly unbiased sources seems to "interpret" statistics in favor of whichever material the writer prefers. So while I cannot give specific figures, there are two things I feel confident in saying regarding recycling paper and plastic.

First, a lot more paper is recycled than plastic. Estimates of paper recycling are as high as 50% or greater while plastic is definitely under 10%. This is one of the primary reasons those moving away from plastic give for their change in policy. Recycling, they say, simply does not work with plastic. Perhaps this is because so much plastic is used for shopping bags or plates at fast food restaurants and are unlikely to be easily submitted to a recycling program while a lot of paper, especially newspapers, are easily recycled through community programs. But whatever the reason, it is clear the paper industry is the leader in recycling.

But on the other hand, when these materials are sent to a landfill, plastic often takes up less space due to its relative strength. For instance, a plastic grocery bag takes up about 10% of the space as a paper grocery bag. Plastic plates are usually thinner than paper plates and thus also take up less room. So it becomes very tricky to estimate which causes the most pollution.

The only conclusion I could draw is that I am glad I carry my own cloth reusable shopping bags these days when I attend the grocer. This way I generate no pollution of either origin -- neither paper nor plastic. Has KFC made the right choice? We can only hope they have researched the specifics of their situation and made an educated choice. In addition to the switch to paper boxes over plates, they are also now using reusable containers for their side dishes that customers can take home and use. Will this be successful? It is hard to say, but good to know at least they are trying!

Which do you believe is more damaging to the environment?

  • Plastic
  • Paper
See results without voting

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Anjili profile image

Anjili 5 years ago from planet earth, a humanoid

Good argument. However, most advocates prefer natural paper coz it is easily biogradable, and this, to the detriment of trees. Plastics are proving to be harmful to health while paper enhances the environment.

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