Paper or Plastic?

If you’ve ever felt alone and without a friend, like nobody understands you and the world is out to get you, remind yourself: things could be worse. You could be a plastic bag.

Plastic bags suffer disdain rarely known outside dog catchers and tax collectors. Global consumption of non-degradable plastic bags is estimated between four and five trillion each year. The vast majority are never recycled and wind up in landfill, sewer systems, oceans, lakes and rivers. They are known jokingly as the National Flower of South Africa their ubiquitous discarded presence. The clog waterways, choke marine animals, and take 1,000 years to decompose. What’s more, the thoughtless use of plastic bags deepens our reliance on foreign oil: to produce the global supply requires 17 billion gallons of oil annually. (Source: San Francisco Chronicle; Worldwatch Institute)

The problem is, plastic bags are such a common part of our lives that individuals have a hard time conceiving the ruinous effect on the environment. Using plastic bags is one of the few things nearly every human on earth has in common, young and old, rich and poor. Severe, large-scale cultural change seems to be the only way to reverse the trend of plastic bag abuse.

Several countries, including South Africa, Rwanda, Bhutan and Bangladesh have banned non-recyclable plastic bags outright. Individual cities like Paris, Mumbai and San Francisco have recently initiated bans. Progressive countries like Australia, Taiwan and Singapore are considering drastic bag reduction programs.

One of the most successful plastic bag reduction initiatives comes from Ireland, where in 2002 the government legislated a tax on plastic bags at the register. Within weeks, plastic bag use dropped by 94 percent, and people began adopting reusable cloth bags. But then something unexpected happened: carrying a plastic bag became a stigma akin to wearing a fur coat. Irish people became generally more mindful of the role of the individual in creating global change. England is considering a similar tax. (Source: New York Times)

In the United States there are no broad measures in the works, though individual cities have taken their own initiatives. Los Angeles, Boston and Phoenix are considering bag reduction proposals. New York City may soon require stores that distribute bags to recycle them, although this is a pale compromise to an outright ban. A national bag ban would be an excellent statement of environmental leadership but in our legislative system is almost certain to never see the light of day.

Unfortunately, paper bags aren’t an environmentally friendly alternative: their production generates 70% more air pollutants and 50 times more water pollutants than plastic bags, and take up nine times as much landfill space. (Source: USA Today, Environmental Protection Agency)

What, then, are environmentally conscious Americans to do?

For Retailers, the options are many. Some are adopting biodegradable bags made from corn starch or other organic components, but these are relatively expensive and unreliable: a cardboard box corner can create a small tear that will cause the bag to fail and groceries to fall. Many stores offer a credit to customers who bring their own bags; Whole Foods is planning to raise the credit from 5 to 10 cents per bag and plans to stop distributing plastic bags completely by year’s end, instead offering 99-cent reusable cloth bags at checkout. Other retailers offer heavy-duty plastic bags that shoppers are encouraged to reuse; still others promote recycling programs that transforms used bags into heavy-duty wood plank replacements for commercial decking and park benches.

For the Shopper, the best option is to choose neither paper nor plastic, but to bring your own bag, box or backpack to shop. Many retailers now offer durable, inexpensive reusable bags; in some places, these bags are even fashionable. Even the best of us will occasionally forget to bring our bags, and in such cases, use as few bags as necessary and make a promise to recycle the bags you bring home. Encourage your favorite retailers to make plastic recycling available. Above all, follow the green mantra: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

(reusable bag images, clockwise from left: King Soopers polyurethane bag; Lunds/Byerly’s compact cloth sack; reusable plastic bag from The Coop Advantage, open and compacted)