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Paper, Plastic, or Something Better?

Reusable Bags Are Best for Both Consumers and the Environment

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Woman with reusable grocery bag in each hand
Steven Puetzer/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images
The next time the clerk at your favorite grocery store asks whether you prefer “paper or plastic” for your purchases, consider giving the truly eco-friendly response and saying, “neither.”

Plastic bags end up as litter that fouls the landscape, and kill thousands of marine mammals every year that mistake the floating bags for food. Plastic bags that get buried in landfills may take up to 1,000 years to break down, and in the process they separate into smaller and smaller toxic particles that contaminate soil and water. Furthermore, the production of plastic bags consume millions of gallons of oil that could be used for fuel and heating.

Is Paper Better Than Plastic?
Paper bags, which many people consider a better alternative to plastic bags, carry their own set of environmental problems. For example, according to the American Forest and Paper Association, in 1999 the U.S. alone used 10 billion paper grocery bags, which adds up to a lot of trees.

Reusable Bags Are a Better Option
But if you decline both paper and plastic bags, then how do you get your groceries home? The answer, according to many environmentalists, is high-quality reusable shopping bags made of materials that don’t harm the environment during production and don’t need to be discarded after each use. [You can find a good selection of high-quality reusable bags online at reusablebags.com. In addition, many organic grocery stores and consumer co-operatives carry reusable shopping bags.]

Experts estimate that 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags are consumed and discarded annually worldwide—more than a million per minute.

Here are a few facts about plastic bags to help demonstrate the value of reusable bags—to consumers and the environment:

  • Plastic bags aren’t biodegradable. They actually go through a process called photodegradation—breaking down into smaller and smaller toxic particles that contaminate both soil and water, and end up entering the food chain when animals accidentally ingest them.
  • According to the Environmental Protection Agency, more than 380 billion plastic bags are used in the United States every year. Of those, approximately 100 billion are plastic shopping bags, which cost retailers about $4 billion annually.
  • According to various estimates, Taiwan consumes 20 billion plastic bags annually (900 per person), Japan consumes 300 billion bags each year (300 per person), and Australia consumes 6.9 billion plastic bags annually (326 per person).
  • Hundreds of thousands of whales, dolphins, sea turtles and other marine mammals die every year after eating discarded plastic bags they mistake for food.
  • Discarded plastic bags have become so common in Africa they have spawned a cottage industry. People there collect the bags and use them to weave hats, bags and other goods. According to the BBC, one such group routinely collects 30,000 bags every month.
  • Plastic bags as litter have even become commonplace in Antarctica and other remote areas. According to David Barnes, a marine scientist with the British Antarctic Survey, plastic bags have gone from being rare in the late 1980s and early 1990s to being almost everywhere in Antarctica.

Some governments have recognized the severity of the problem and are taking action to help combat it.

Strategic Taxes Can Cut Plastic Bag Use
In 2001, for example, Ireland was using 1.2 billion plastic bags annually, about 316 per person. In 2002, the Irish government imposed a plastic bag consumption tax (called a PlasTax), which has reduced consumption by 90 percent. The tax of $.15 per bag is paid by consumers when they check out at the store. Besides cutting back on litter, Ireland’s tax has saved approximately 18 million liters of oil. Several other governments around the world are now considering a similar tax on plastic bags.

Governments Use the Law to Limit Plastic Bags
More recently, Japan passed a law that empowers the government to issue warnings to merchants that overuse plastic bags and don’t do enough to “reduce, reuse or recycle.” In Japanese culture, it is common for stores to wrap each item in its own bag, which the Japanese consider a matter of both good hygiene and respect or politeness.

Companies Making Tough Choices
Meanwhile, some eco-friendly companies—such as Toronto’s Mountain Equipment Co-op—are voluntarily exploring ethical alternatives to plastic bags, turning to biodegradable bags made from corn. The corn-based bags cost several times more than plastic bags, but are produced using much less energy and will break down in landfills or composters in four to 12 weeks.

Related Video
How to Make a Reusable Grocery Bag

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