Monday, August 20, 2007

Paper or Plastic: Not

Which is better - paper or plastic? It seems like paper would be the better choice because it feels more natural, so we think it will biodegrade. On the other hand, plastic takes up less room in the landfill. A lot of elements must be taken into consideration when choosing which bag to use at the grocery store.

  • Processing trees into bags requires a lot of energy
  • Higher transportation costs because of size (to & from the store, to landfill)
  • 1/2 of landfill space is taken up by paper
  • "14 million trees in 1999 alone were cut down to manufacture the 10 million paper grocery bags used by Americans"
  • Plastics are the waste products of the oil refining process (when considering the impacts of plastic bags, also keep in mind the impacts of oil extraction)
  • Require less energy to produce than paper bags
  • Take up less space in the landfill
  • Marine life is threatened when they ingest plastic bags, which become lodged in their throat or stomach and cause starvation
  • Can clog sewer pipes, which lead to standing water and health problems
So which is better? Plastic requires less energy to produce, and takes up less room in transportation and in landfills. But, once they're here, plastics take hundreds to thousands of years to biodegrade. Paper requires cutting down trees, and takes up more room in a landfill. The biodegradability may be a factor, however, today's landfills are constructed so that nothing biodegrades because materials are cut off from air and water supplies needed to biodegrade.

Solution: buy a reusable bag, and reuse it. Keep your bags by the door or in the car, so you remember to take them with you. Many stores offer a discount if you reuse, and you've done a lot to reduce waste in your community. (I wonder when stores began providing bags to people, and passed the expense onto the consumer.)

This doesn't just mean plastic and paper grocery bags. Consider ziploc and brown paper lunch bags. They have an impact too. Get some reusable storage containers (Glad and Ziploc make excellent ones that are cheap and recyclable), and a cool lunchbox instead of creating waste every day. It'll save you money, and help the environment.

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