Utne Blogs > Environment

Paper or Plastic or Neither?

by Rachel Levitt


Tags: Environment, green living, global warming, plastic vs. paper bags, waste, landfills, San Francisco, SF Weekly, TreeHugger,

Plastic bagIn March 2007, San Francisco became the first city in the nation to outright ban plastic bags from being distributed by larger retailers. But almost two years later, an SF Weekly reporter finds that the cut-and-dried argument used for so long—plastic bad, paper good—is largely disproved after a close look at the facts.

True, producing plastic bags takes millions of barrels of oil, but processing paper bags releases noxious chemicals and pollutes millions of gallons of water. In addition, transporting them to stores takes far more space and gasoline than their plastic cousins.

“Firstly," says the author, "biodegrading paper represents a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions. Secondly, in a properly run landfill, paper doesn't really biodegrade. In fact, nothing much really does.” Landfill trash is so tightly compacted that paper and even food waste remains mummified for decades, unable to break down.

As for the aesthetic argument, that the ban would eliminate unsightly and unsafe plastic litter, research shows that while overall litter has decreased, plastic bags’ share of that percentage of that number has actually increased since the ban.

So what should consumers do? As TreeHugger puts it, “Ultimately, neither paper nor plastic bags are the best choice; we think choosing reusable canvas bags instead is the way to go. From an energy standpoint, according to this Australian study, canvas bags are 14 times better than plastic bags and 39 times better than paper bags, assuming that canvas bags get a good workout and are used 500 times during their life cycle.”

Image courtesy of londonista_londonist, licensed under Creative Commons.

ed stahl
4/17/2010 8:11:00 AM

Last year I discovered a method better than plastic, paper or canvas bags. I get a cardboard box about 20 inches by 30 inches by 12 to 20 inches high. I bring the box into the market, put my selections into the box. Then at the checkout I take them out of the box and put them on the counter and put the box at the other end of the checkout point. After they are scanned either the clerk or I put them into the box. It's easy to lift the box from the cart to my car trunk. At home I pick up the box and carry it to my kitchen for unloading. Usually I can fit all my weekly purchases into the box, when I need more space, one or two canvas bags do the job. This system has saved me a lot of work and works fine for my wife and I. A larger family might need two boxes, but the box is much easier to handle than five or six bags.


pat from 4corners
2/22/2009 11:14:06 AM

I have taken to buying re-useable bags as souviners when I travel. EG, I have a bunch of Powells.com bags from my trip to Portland. Good advertising, good conversation starters and good karma.


zoestarchild
2/16/2009 5:43:22 PM

World Wildlife Federation will send you two very nice reusable bags for a $16 donation. You help the environment twice that way.


becky smith
2/14/2009 1:31:09 PM

Carrying groceries has become the main concern but what about all the plastic bags that are sold to consumers all the time? For example, trash bags, bin liners, sandwich bags etc? Millions of these are sold every year and I bet a tiny proportion are reused. I do have a fairly large collection of canvas, recycled, homemade, reused shopping bags. Unfortunately, If I have to do a spur of the moment trip to the shops I end up getting plastic bags. I don't feel too bad though because I know I'll need these to put in the bathroom bin or to fill with kitty litter box waste. Other ways we can reuse to prevent waste is using empty food containers for leftovers/freezing rather than buying Glad/Ziploc etc. Unfortunately many people get scaremongered into believing that these practices may harm so we need to buy more "safe" plastic junk to fill our cupboards with.


becky smith
2/14/2009 1:30:51 PM

Carrying groceries has become the main concern but what about all the plastic bags that are sold to consumers all the time? For example, trash bags, bin liners, sandwich bags etc? Millions of these are sold every year and I bet a tiny proportion are reused. I do have a fairly large collection of canvas, recycled, homemade, reused shopping bags. Unfortunately, If I have to do a spur of the moment trip to the shops I end up getting plastic bags. I don't feel too bad though because I know I'll need these to put in the bathroom bin or to fill with kitty litter box waste. Other ways we can reuse to prevent waste is using empty food containers for leftovers/freezing rather than buying Glad/Ziploc etc. Unfortunately many people get scaremongered into believing that these practices may harm so we need to buy more "safe" plastic junk to fill our cupboards with.


sgtrock
2/14/2009 11:21:12 AM

I use pillow case34 I buy at the Goodwill for a $.25. They are durable, big to hold a load and recycled. Best of all worlds. No more plastic!


karen york
2/14/2009 6:44:26 AM

www.morsbags.com ---- great link for a sew your own bag pattern.


lien
2/13/2009 7:44:12 PM

I have about half a dozen canvas bags, baskets that i take to the groceries and farmers markets. Sometimes i even put the produce straight into these bags without using the small plastic bags provided for fruit and vegetables (i re-used these too). Another big environmental problem is the styrofoam containers used by restaurants. I think they should be banned also. I started to bring my own container to restaurant for left over and ask if i could bring my container for take out like i did in VietNam. It's about time to re-use whatever/whenever we could, imho.


barbara veldhuizen
2/13/2009 7:14:23 PM

The answer is to get a string bag, a cloth bag or a good durable shopping bag and use it over and over and over and over and over untill it wears out and then get another one from someone who has one in the back of their closet )because we all save then, right?) and use it over and over and over etc. until we get the idea that we are simply wasteful beings and we feel great about being resourceful and it becomes a habit. Paradigm shift for many, I know. But....


conni
2/13/2009 6:33:38 PM

The best solution to this problem is to sew your own grocery bags or , like my grandma used to do, crochet them or use makramee technique to make your own. You can re-use them for a very long time, wash them when they are dirty,...


rock_1
1/23/2009 6:13:53 AM

Without seeing the original article, I'm not sure if some points weren't simplified too much. Paper is renewable which casts doubt on the greenhouse gas emissions conjecture. Trees are a surface based carbon cycle. They grow by removing CO2, and when decomposed, return that CO2 to the atmosphere to be reused to grow more trees. Petroleum is sequestered carbon buried deep below the surface. Bringing it to the surface and releasing the CO2 adds 'new' CO2 to the balance. Waste separation should put paper in a different 'pile' than material slated for landfilling, and overall, much more waste should be composted rather than buried to return the materials for use, and return the space. Most of the grocery store bags I have seen are poorly manufactured polyester items - they come apart easily, and are a petroleum product. Often, these types of analyses overlook synergy, and accept the status quo as the baseline. Sustainability requires many changes in life style and culture. Improved or radically altered transportation methods synergistically changes the outcome of these calculations. Cellulosic based plastics might change the fate analysis of plastic bags. Decentralization might alter our shopping practices. The world wide depression might foster (should foster) more home gardens. And so on ...