Paper or Plastic? Uh...Can I Get Back to You?

>“Paper or plastic?” It’s probably the single most common question in daily life – a query that can lead to embarrassing indecision, a kind of eco-paralysis that spares neither the planet nor the people standing behind you in line.

As it turns out, the environmentally correct answer to the question isn’t as straightforward as you might think.  In California, even the state’s highest court is debating the issue, as it prepares to decide whether communities can ban plastic bags at grocery stores without first studying the environmental effects of the increased use of paper.

The conventional wisdom is that a bag made of paper is the more earth-friendly option. Indeed, on that assumption, San Francisco banned plastic bags in grocery stores in 2007. Other California communities, including Oakland and San Jose, are also considering their own plastic bag prohibitions. Meanwhile, since January, grocery shoppers in Washington D.C. have been charged a five-cent tax on all disposable bags – both plastic and paper. And Baltimore's City Council is considering a ban on plastic bags or a levy on all disposable bags. Even environmental laggard China banned the use of ultra-thin plastic bags in 2008, while consumers in Italy, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, and Ireland all now pay a surcharge for using plastic.

Eco-conscious grocers such as Whole Foods Market have cast their votes as well, eliminating plastic bags and offering only paper sacks. At grocery stores that offer both, it’s not unusual to hear those opting for plastic adding a shamefaced, “Sorry!”

THE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT of the 50 to 80 billion plastic shopping bags Americans use every year is indeed significant. For one thing, a plastic shopping bag can take as long as 1,000 years to decompose in a landfill. If Norse explorer Leif Eriksson had left a plastic bag behind when he became the first European to visit North America, the bag would just now have decomposed.

And because plastic bags easily become airborne, they turn up as litter in much greater numbers than do paper bags. (In China, the blizzard of plastic bags swirling through the streets is known as “white pollution.”) The British Antarctic Survey has found plastic bags floating north of the Arctic Circle, and as far south as the Falkland Islands. Plastic bags pollute lakes and rivers and contribute to what’s been dubbed The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a gyre of trash in the North Pacific Ocean. Floating plastic bags aren’t just unsightly; they also kill. An unknown number of turtles and other sea animals die each year after ingesting discarded plastic bags, which they mistake for food.

SO THAT MUST MEAN paper bags are always better for the environment than plastic ones – right?

Not so fast, Green Avenger.

Overall, the evidence does not support the widely held view that paper bags are far more environmentally friendly than plastic. Paper bags, after all, require considerably more energy and resources to produce than plastic ones. The manufacture of an uncomposted paper bag generates nearly 40 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than a plastic bag does. What’s more, plastic grocery bags consume 71% less energy during production and require less than 6% of the water needed to make paper bags. And since paper bags weigh six to ten times more than plastic, they require more fuel to transport them to stores and take up more space in landfills.

Presented by

Tom McNichol, a frequent contributor to TheAtlantic.com, is a San Francisco writer whose work has also appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and on NPR's "All Things Considered."

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