Paper or Plastic? There's a Better Choice

Paper or Plastic? There's a Better Choice

During this season of extreme consumption, I become even more Scrooge-like about a wasteful practice that already has me mumbling "ba-humbug" throughout the year: the use of plastic and paper shopping bags. These seem to accumulate even more after holiday visits to the grocery store and shopping mall. But it doesn't have to be that way. In 2008, we could resolve to give up disposable, non-biodegradable shopping bags.
The City of Annapolis, Maryland, recently came close to doing just that.
In November, the Annapolis city council considered, and rejected, legislation proposed to prohibit the retail distribution of plastic shopping bags. Instead, an alternative bill was proposed that would study the impact of plastic shopping bags on local habitat. The new bill would also establish a panel to examine the city's environmental practices and initiatives.
These developments resemble similar conversations taking place in municipalities across the country in Boston; Baltimore; Washington, Oakland, Calif.; Portland, Ore.; Santa Monica, Calif.; and Steamboat Springs, Colo; and around the world. Last April, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to ban non-biodegradable plastic bags in large grocery and drug stores. Plastic shopping bags have already been laid to rest in places like Rwanda and Bangladesh, where they block drains and cause flooding. In Bhutan - where happiness lies at the heart of government policy - plastic bags were banned on the grounds that they make the country less happy. Bhutan has been able to adopt radical policies partly because it is a remote kingdom and partly because it is an absolute monarchy.
For more than a decade, Scandinavian merchants have charged for shopping bags, whether paper or plastic, a practice carried on by the home furnishings store IKEA here in the United States.
In 2002, Ireland instituted the world's first "plastax" to reign in the consumption of 1.2 billion plastic shopping bags per year. In response, most retailers switched to recyclable paper bags, or required customers to supply their own. The tax has resulted in a more than 90 percent drop in plastic bag consumption. It has also raised millions of dollars earmarked for a green fund to benefit the environment.
Before reducing their national consumption, many Irish citizens referred to plastic bags as the "national flag." In South Africa, roving plastic bags have jokingly been called the "national flower." In the United States, a plastic bag blowing down the street during a windy day might be called "urban tumbleweed."
Will eliminating these symbols of waste solve all of our environmental problems? No. However, if you look at their life cycle - from natural resource extraction, to production, to their transportation and ultimate disposal - they can do considerable harm.
Polyethylene plastic bags began showing up in checkout lines in 1977. Producing them requires petroleum and sometimes natural gas. Today, millions of barrels of oil are dedicated to manufacturing the more than 100 billion plastic shopping bags consumed annually in the United States. That number jumps to the annual use of 500 billion to 1 trillion disposable, non-biodegradable plastic shopping bags worldwide.
After using them to tote milk, batteries or socks, most people throw their plastic shopping bags away. Even if the bags get one more turn in the bathroom garbage can or as a pooper scooper, the majority of discarded plastic shopping bags end up in landfills, or find their way into creeks, rivers, coastal areas and places like the Chesapeake Bay - where they may be ingested by birds, fish, turtles and numerous marine mammals. During the hundreds of years they take to degrade, they emit toxic chemicals into the air and water.
The other "choice," paper, represents a minimal improvement. While more biodegradable, paper still requires the destruction of natural resources and a certain amount of chemical processing. They also cost more to transport.
There really is no debate with regard to shopping bags. Both paper and plastic represent a significant cost to both people and the environment.
I'm pleased that legislators in Annapolis - and in other cities around the world - want to play a role in improving how we use, and reuse, limited natural resources. Local grocery store chains and other merchants are stepping up too - as witnessed in the reusable bags now being offered for purchase in many locations.
However, I'm not going to wait for committees to meet or legislation to be passed before I do the right thing. The responsibility for eliminating this particular symbol of our consumption lies within each of us. It's a simple fix. Collect some reusable shopping bags and bring them to the store. If you are handy, make your own. They generate very little waste. They fit a lot of stuff. They represent something small we can all do to make a very big difference.

Sara Kaplaniak lives and writes in Pennsylvania, where she reduces, reuses and recycles along with her husband and two kids. This column was distributed by Bay Journal News Service.