Paper or Plastic or Neither?

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In 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.

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