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.
Then there’s deforestation: about 14 million trees are cut down every year to satisfy America’s consumption of paper shopping bags. That means that the manufacture of paper bags delivers a climate change double-whammy. Not only are large quantities of greenhouse gases produced, but the number of CO2-absorbing trees is also cut back.
And while it’s true that plastic bags may take as long as a millennium to decompose, paper bags often don’t fare much better. Due to the lack of water, light, and oxygen in many modern landfills, paper doesn’t break down significantly faster than plastic does.
The difference in environmental impact between the two materials is so narrow that some environmentalists answer the “Paper or plastic?” question with another question: “Where do you live?” People who live by the water, they say, should choose paper, since plastic threatens marine wildlife, while residents in the interior should opt for plastic, since it results in fewer greenhouse gases and can be reused more often than a paper bag.