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Paper or Plastic? BYOB

Reduce, reuse, recycle

As you wait patiently for your groceries to approach the cashier’s scanner, you are expecting the bagger to ask, “Paper or Plastic?”  Perhaps, without thinking twice, you blurt out your preference for the copious bags that will soon pile at the bottom of your pantry or in the trashcan.   A few shoppers may actually consider plastic because of easy storage and small, light size, for eco-friendliness you’d think paper is the slam dunk best choice.  The right answer and the facts surrounding the claim may surprise you.

Say ‘goodbye’ to millions of trees

Bagging your red peppers and carrots in a paper bag is not the answer to ‘greening up’ your trip to the grocery store.  In fact, paper bags are no better than plastic bags.  Many believe that because they are tree based products they are more eco-friendly.  In order to produce the desired amounts of paper bags, many trees have to be logged and processed. According to the American Forest and Paper Association, in 1999, 14 million trees were cut down to produce the 10 billion paper grocery bags used in the United States that year alone.  It is reasonable to say that the numbers have increased since then to accommodate the rising population.

The production of paper for grocery bags worldwide is a process which heavily relies on the presence of various chemicals.  The pungent smell of paper mills is not the only thing that can irritate the surrounding ecosystem.  The use of toxic chemicals contributes to both air pollution, such as acid rain, and water pollution.  In 1988, the Federal Office of the Environment published that in fact the production of paper sacks generate 70% more air and 50 times more water pollutants than plastic bags.

Since people associate paper bags with other unwanted paper products like newspapers or advertisements, paper bags have a higher recycling rate than plastic.  Unfortunately, despite the great effort of recyclers worldwide, paper recycling can cost a lot of energy.  The Society of the Plastic Industry‘s (SPI) research states that it takes 1444 BTUs or 1362 kJ to recycle one paper bag.  This is almost half of the energy is taken to create the bag originally; thus, some energy is conserved.  But, is expelling additional energy to remanufacture the product a good choice?

Plastic isn’t that fantastic

Plastic bags are often seen blowing in tree branches, clogging street drains, floating in our oceans, and flooding our storage cabinets.  It is estimated by scientists that, worldwide, more than a million plastic bags are consumed and discarded per minute. That is approximately 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags annually.  Many are striving to decrease the outrageous number of plastic bags that reach the landfill by recycling used bags.  According to the Wall Street Journal, only 1% to 3% of plastic bags are being recycled,  Eleven barrels of oil are saved when one ton of plastic bags is reused or recycled, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

What happens to the plastic bags which do not get recycled?  The most obvious answer – they reach the landfill where they do not biodegrade due to their chemical composition.  Even the SPI determined that plastic bags do not break down completely into organic materials.  While the bags make your local landfill their home, they go through a process called photodegradation.  This means that the plastic is broken down into smaller pieces which can gain mobility and relocation via water, wind, or wildlife.  According to the EPA and The Ocean Conservancy, wildlife is significantly threatened by various plastics, including discarded bags.  Marine life constantly mistake plastic bags for prey like jellyfish, and consuming plastic bags can cause blockage to the digestive tract which leads to starvation and death. In 2002, a whale that washed up on the coast of Normandy had 800 grams of plastic elements, including plastic bags, in its stomach.

Unlike biodegradable paper bags, plastic bags have become common in even the most remote places like Antarctica.  According to David Barnes, a marine scientist with the British Antarctic Survey, plastic bags were a rarity in the late 1980s, yet since the early 1990s they have significantly contributed to pollution.

Thankfully, news like this travels faster than migrating plastic bags and has motivated worldwide communities to take action.  In 2002, the Irish government imposed a plastic bag consumption tax (called a PlasTax); consumers pay an obligatory fee of $0.15 per bag at check out.  This has reduced consumption of plastic bags by 90% and has saved the country 18 million liters of oil, and counting. China has also banned the distribution of free plastic bags, in efforts to encourage reusable alternatives.  Closer to home, San Francisco has become the first U.S. city to ban petroleum-based plastic grocery bags in 2007.

The answer you’re looking for – BYOB

Bring your own bags!  The alternative to plastic and paper bags is reusable bags because they are designed for more than a one-time use.  Reusable bags come in many different colors, sizes, and are made out of various materials. Reusable shopping bags are available to accommodate produce, heavy items, and little storage space.  Substituting reusable bags for disposable ones will help save millions of dollars on oil extraction used for plastic bag production, land clean ups, future disposable bag purchases by stores, and the remanufacturing costs incurred by recycling centers to process disposable bags.

By bringing your own bags to your shopping experience, you will help eliminate the addition of plastic and/or paper bags into our landfills and ecosystems.  Consequently, you are preventing the pollution of our oceans.  One reusable bag can replace thousands of plastic bags which could have negatively impacted our planet.   You are also saving terrestrial and marine wildlife by decreasing their interaction with disposed garbage and possible paper mill emissions.

The answer to our shopping woes almost seems too obvious, but most Americans continue to use plastic and/or paper bags.  Take a stand against plastic and paper bags, and damaging consequences associated with them.  Start by recycling your current paper bags, along with your other paper products. Then take a trip to the local grocery store to dispose of your plastic bags, by dropping them into the designated plastic bag recycling bin that most grocery stores are taking the initiative to install.  The last and most exciting part of this eco-friendly approach to shopping is the investment in reusable bags.  Browse the collection of reusable bags at your local grocery store or online.

 

 

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