Will That Be Paper Or Plastic?

21Aug06

I’m not great, but I try to be as earth-friendly as I can. I drive a Honda Civic and try to walk or ride my bike whenever possible. I stay home to study, most days, instead of heading out to Starbucks or someplace. We recycle like crazy in our house. Since we started paying for recycling at the house (it’s not free here in Columbus like it was home), our trash has been at least halved and our recycling bin is always overflowing into other bags or boxes.

I also try to learn as much as I can. Because sometimes, things that seem right aren’t always. I’ve become a big huge proponent of paper bags at the grocery stores because I always thought, “Hey! Trees are renewable and petroleum (what makes plastic) isn’t. Plus, paper’s biodegradable and plastic’s not.”

My grocery store absolutely HATES this. Whenever I request paper instead of plastic I get a sigh and this really exaggerated removal of the plastic bags and supposed search for the paper ones. I try to look at the tabloids during this process to avoid giving what some people say is a certain look I give.

When I used to live in Ithaca, I used cloth bags and no one cared. They loved it. I get the feeling that if I tried that here, I’d be asked to leave.

Anyway, after my mid-week run to the store for the things I forgot or needed fresh (shrimp), I got to thinking about how I’d really love to have some statistics to back me up in my crusade to replace plastic bags with paper ones.

I am here to admit that I may be wrong. Consider the following:

ILEA, The Institute for Lifecycle Assessment, after a lengthy and detailed study, concluded the following:

“Through a lifecycle energy analysis, plastic is the better bag. At current recycling rates two plastic bags use less energy and produce less solid, atmospheric, and waterborne waste than a single paper bag. Moreover future improvements only increase preference in plastic bags. Increasing recycling rates and reducing the 2-to-1 ratio through proper bagging techniques would further the energy preference for plastic bags.”

ILEA gives the short and sweet answer here, on a postcard you can print out and send to a friend (in case you don’t want to save paper and send that friend an email or a link to my blog or to the ILEA website).

Now, in case you don’t want to just take ILEA at their word, and in case you want to know about more than just energy input and output, the Environmental Literacy Council also provides an interesting analysis of the environmental impact. They address one of my specific concerns:

“Although plastics do not biodegrade, modern landfills are designed in such a way that nothing biodegrades, because the waste is isolated from air and water in order to prevent groundwater contamination and air pollution. As manufacturers have continued to make their plastic packaging thinner and lighter to save materials, the percentage of landfill volume taken up by plastics has remained steady since 1970 even as plastics have become more widely used.”

They also do make note of the many concerns we should have with plastic including littering, animal impact, and even flooding:

“In 2002, Bangladesh banned plastic bags after drains blocked by bags contributed to widespread monsoon flooding in 1988 and 1998. Ireland has decreased plastic bag consumption by placing a consumer tax on plastic bags. Perhaps the most strict plastic bag regulations are found in the Indian province of Himachal Pradesh, where people caught with plastic bags are fined $2000. “

At any rate, I think the answer is that we should all start using re-usable cloth bags. I’m sure the nice people at the grocery store won’t actually escort me out to my car, right?

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