“Paper or plastic?” has become as commonplace and casual as “Have a nice day.” But there’s nothing casual about the use of plastic bags and paper bags for groceries in America. As consumers, we want to make as many environmentally responsible choices as possible. But when it comes to paper vs. plastic, the decision isn’t as easy as you might think.
According to Worldwatch Institute, factories around the world manufacture 4 to 5 trillion plastic bags per year. Plastic bags begin their lives as natural gas or other petrochemical substances, which are limited, polluting, and increasingly expensive resources.
Paper bags, on the other hand, are made from trees. According to the American Forest and Paper Association, about 700 bags can be made from one 15 to 20 year old tree. “Kraft” paper, that familiar rough, brown paper used to make bags, is noted for its strength and elasticity. Recycling used brown paper bags significantly reduces the virgin wood pulp used in making new bags. Recycled bags also help to reduce the cost of making new bags because of changes in the process. And, it uses a lot less new trees. Are paper bags better? Let’s compare paper and plastic. Plastic bag production requires 40 percent less energy, results in 80 percent less solid and 94 percent less waterborne wastes, and generates 70 percent less air pollution than the manufacture of paper bags. Plastic bags also take up less room in landfills. But many plastic bags are littered or fly away, where they clog up sewers and waterways, become entangled in vegetation and fences, and get caught in the throats of animals. Plastic bags are found in the stomachs of sea turtles and on the shores of remote islands. Once plastic bags are in the environment – whether in a landfill or polluting a lake – it can take hundreds of years for them to decompose, and they contribute toxins to the soil and water as they do.
Paper bags tend to have more creative uses as well. They can be used in craft projects, for storage or taken back to the store to be refilled several times. Gardeners can throw grass clippings into a paper bag then put the whole package into a compost bin, which hastens the breakdown of the bags. Currently there is no facility in the Northern Illinois area in which to recycle plastic bags. Most curbside pickup and recycling centers allow the collection of newspapers (recyclable) in paper bags. Some even request that other paper items be place in paper not plastic bags which makes the entire package recyclable.
But, whether paper or plastic, if your bag winds up in the landfill it can take centuries to break down, if ever. Items placed in any landfill are covered over with layers of dirt and compacted. It is almost impossible for oxygen to penetrate deep into a landfill and unless oxygen is present, biodegradation cannot take place. The best solution? Your great-grandmother had the right idea. The old-fashioned cloth or canvas shopping bag can be reused time and time again. First, get several sturdy canvas or cloth shopping bags that you can take with you to the grocery store. Here are a few sources:
- Look around the house. Many people have canvas and cloth tote bags stashed away, forgotten, in the back of a closet.
- Canvas tote bags are often offered as free gifts when you join a club, enroll in a program, or donate to an organization. Ask for a canvas tote for your birthday, Mother’s Day, Christmas, or other holiday.
- Canvas bags may now be purchased at most grocery stores for a reasonable price.
- Check out thrift stores, garage sales, and flea markets for canvas bags.
- Ask family, friends, and coworkers if they have any extra canvas bags they don’t need. Tell them about your plans, and they may want to join you in making a difference!
- Next, keep canvas bags in your car and, if you have a few extra, some by the front door or the door to the garage. After you use the bags for groceries, fold them and place them near the door so you can pick them up on your way out. It’s also a good idea to keep a few extra canvas bags in the trunk. Never leave home without them!