Are Paper or Plastic Bags Better?
Should You Choose Paper or Plastic Bags?
You've just loaded up your cart with groceries for the week and now comes the most important question... No, its not how you're going to pay for all those goods, but how will you carry them home?
Paper or plastic? The checker at most stores will ask you when you get to the front of the line. Do you really know which answer is most environmentally-sound? Time for a little 101 on the greenest grocery bags.
Did you know that both paper and plastic are roughly equal with regard to damage to the environment? In the end, however, more people are probably recycling paper grocery bags than plastic bags. This needs to change - and fast! Plastic bags are not biodegradable. They clog up our landfills and, worse, make an awful mess when people litter. Not only are they unsightly when seen clinging to trees or wrapped around shrubs, but they can suffocate small animals just as easily as they can human beings. Its even worse when they get into our lakes, river and oceans. Grocery stores take back plastic bags. Some municipal recycling services are starting to do the same. Be a responsible citizen and do not throw away your plastic bags. Never EVER litter!
So, in answering the question - paper or plastic - do you know all the facts?
Paper or Plastic - Part One: Paper
It takes considerably more energy to create a paper bag, than it does a plastic bag. Some estimates are in the range of 4:1 of paper vs. plastic. Of course, we all know what paper bags are made of too.... trees!In order to create the paper pulp that was made into approximately 10 billion grocery bags (year 2000 figures), about 15 million trees were harvested. The loss of trees impacts the environment in a number of ways, most significantly with respect to greenhouse gas absorption. The fewer trees there are, theoretically, the greater the impact of greenhouse gases on global warming.
Recently, the grocery store chain Whole Foods made the switch to 100% recycled paper bags, choosing to eliminate plastic bags entirely. Some customers and consumers are not entirely sure that this was the right environmental decision. Even creating bags from recycled paper takes more energy than making plastic bags. And, they are bulkier and heavier to ship. All of this energy burns fossil fuels, which is released into the atmosphere.
More on the Paper or Plastic Debate
Buy Your Own Reusable Shopping Bags
Paper or Plastic - Part Two: Plastic
So, we're not cutting down trees to produce plastic bags. That's a plus into the benefits column. But, they're made from oil. And that's a negative.
Back into the plus column, they are much lighter and easier to ship, so the costs of transporting them, and the fuel it takes to drive them across the country to all your favorite grocery stores is less. That is environmentally favorable. So where are we in the paper or plastic debate?
One of the biggest problems was mentioned above - people do not recycle plastic bags. Estimates are that, with paper bags, at least 15-20% are recycled. That drops to a dismal 3% rate for plastic bags. And you know where they go. If they're not in landfills, they are blowing around parking lots and vacant lots. We've all seen them.
In a landfill, the plastic bags will last up to 1000 years. Thrown away into the fragile natural environment, they can release toxic particles into water and soils when they begin to break down.
Of course, it is a global problem. Australia, South Africa, India, China, Italy, Bangladesh and Taiwan have banned, or instituted partial bans on plastic bags to combat the serious environmental threats they pose. Ireland imposes a tax on each bag, which is another way to slow down their use (after the tax, consumers' usage dropped 90%).
In March 2007, the City of San Francisco was the first major United States city to ban plastic bags, and Oakland soon followed suit.
Whole Foods' Decision
Buy Reuseable Bags
You may never have to answer the question of paper or plastic again, if you buy some reusable canvas bags, like the one pictured to the right.
Admittedly, I have been resistant, given my large family and frequent trips to the grocery store. But who says you have to put everything into just one or two bags? Buy a whole bunch of them and keep them in the back of your car. My local Fred Meyer store offers them at a discount and advertises that each black canvas bag will fit the equivalent amount of groceries of 2-3 plastic bags.
Even if you are an avid recycler, you will feel so much better doing your part for the environment.
The choice between paper or plastic is not a clear one, but the choice against them is.
© 2008 Stephanie Hicks