Paper vs. Plastic: The Great Green Debate

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.

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6 Comments

  • J. Jeffryes

    We use canvas bags. No throwing away of anything. We also try to get as much of our food as possible from the local farmer's market. No excess packaging, no trucks driving hundreds of miles to move the food.

    Real change requires people to change their habits, and to give up a little short-term convenience for long-term environmental gains. Replacing plastic bags with paper might help a little, but it isn't the answer.

  • Ed

    Plastics bags cost taxpayers enormous amounts of money through tipping fees (the cost to dump at the landfill).

    Plastic bags are hard to recycle -- if they are recycled -- and they often contaminate other plastics being recycled.

    Plastic bags also clog up drains and sewage systems -- more costs.

    Plastic bags also are a big source of litter.

  • Lee

    One factor that is often overlooked in the debate over paper vs. plastic bags is the environmental cost to ocean species.

    To quote National Geographic (see source below):

    Plastic bags in the ocean can choke and strangle wildlife. Endangered sea turtles eat the bags and often choke on them—probably because the bags look like jellyfish, the main food of many sea turtles.

    In fact, floating plastic bags have been spotted as far north as the Arctic Ocean (see map) to as far south as the southern end of South America.One expert predicts that within ten years, plastic bags will wash up in Antarctica!

    http://news.nationalgeographic...

    Just one more reason to ban plastic bags at the local level and for consumers to provide their own shopping bags.

    My wife and I take 3 recycled canvas bags (one made of organic cotton, BTW) with us every time we leave the house. Rarely, do we need to accept disposable plastic or paper bags when we shop. Sure it takes a little more planning, but I couldn't live with myself otherwise.

    If you want to read even more about the subject, check it this site:

    http://www.mindfully.org/Plast...

    There is hope.

    Lee
    Atlanta, GA

    S

  • Angela

    There's also the option of NOT providing bags, and asking people to bring their own and/or use their carts to load their cars. Sam's Club does this...

  • Gary Bourgeault

    Liz, Your reasoning is good here from a general perspective too. I think there is far too much demagoguery at this point which does more than good as far as the environment goes.

    The pressure to find political solutions always brings out meaningless drivel in many cases based on what will get voters the most engaged, rather than going about finding real solutions.

    Also the continual attempt to cause fear in people which results in proposed solutions not based in fact or reality but hype and emotion, does nothing other than make many politicians feel good.

    In many cases we need to really find if our concerns are based in real fact or based upon theoretical possibilities yet unproven.

  • darasbir

    good article, brings forth the important and urgent issue we earthlings are facing. how to protect the earth our home.