Which is better for the environment - paper bags or plastic bags? Lawmakers in various parts of the country are betting on paper. In many cities, politicians are considering banning plastic bags in grocery stores because they are not biodegradable and can be harmful to wildlife.
Finally, politicians doing something tangible and immediate to protect the environment! Unlike reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which will take years to take effect and no one is really sure how to accomplish anyway, advocates of the bans say outlawing plastic bags will produce successful results now.
But is this plastic prohibition really the answer? Yes, paper bags are biodegradable and not likely to suffocate a coastal bird. On the other hand, plastic bags require a lot less energy to manufacture and recycle. They're also easier to ship, thus using less gas. Not to mention the fact that 90 percent of stores use plastic bags, not paper.
Of course, the recycling efficiency argument assumes that people are actually going to recycle their plastic bags, which is a huge assumption. Judging from my own personal habits, I imagine many people stash plastic bags in a bottom kitchen cabinet until it's overflowing and then start throwing bags away. (No? Just me?)
So recycle the paper bags instead, and provide bags made out of recycled paper. Again, an idealistic notion that might not translate well in the real world. An article on EnvironmentalChemistry.com outlines the myths and inconsistencies of recycled paper. For instance, the EPA requires anything labeled "recycled paper" to be made up of just 30 percent of products that consumers have actually recycled. While the article is mainly about writing paper, I would think circumstances are similar for paper bags.
Ultimately, I think politicians just want to show that they're doing something, anything, to improve the environment. Although the paper vs. plastic argument probably won't accomplish much, it's something to back up all the green rhetoric. Obviously the real answer is for people to take reusable bags with them to the supermarket, but banning all disposable grocery bags is not going to get any politicians re-elected.