Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Paper or Plastic? The Answer is not as Obvious as You Think.

I'm all for reducing our dependency on plastic grocery/retail bags. So many of them end up in  landfills, get stuck at the top of trees, or float along our waterways (harming the creatures that life there). Yes, they can be reused or recycled, but it's estimated that worldwide 1 million of these bags are used each minute, and a large percentage of these end up as trash.

It would seem that opting for paper bags when possible would be a solution. I have reusable bags that I take to the grocery store, but sometimes I don't have enough of them, and then I ask the cashier to put the rest of my groceries in paper bags. I use the paper bags around the house to collect other paper waste which ends up getting recycled. The paper bags never end up in the trash, they always end up being recycled.

I thought that paper was a much better option. 

Then I did some research. Turns out that although paper bags are more biodegradable, come from a sustainable source, and more of them are recycled than plastic bags, the making of the paper bags and the shipping of the paper bags is more environmentally hazardous than the making and shipping of the plastic bags. The Progressive Bag Alliance has some interesting statistics about what goes into making a plastic bag vs what goes into making a paper bag - even a recycled paper bag.

I never gave a thought to the shipping of the bags to the store, either. Plastic bags are smaller and weigh a lot less than paper bags. It takes more vehicles and more fuel to ship paper bags to stores. 

It seems like neither paper nor plastic are really environmentally friendly options. It also seems that those in favor of plastic have convincing arguments that plastic would be better. Those in favor of paper  have convincing arguments on the paper side. 

It's enough to make my unscientific head explode. 

It's also enough to convince me that I need to be more diligent about keeping my reusable bags with me. Then I won't need to worry about choosing between the lesser of two environmental evils (or trying to decide which is the lesser of the two before I can even choose!). 

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