As far as shopping bags go, the plastic versus paper dilemma is as puzzling as the one about the chicken or the egg. The truth is, the statistics on both types of bags are deeply disturbing. At first glance the alternatives seem less than convenient—-but after learning the facts and finding some easy solutions, we’re saying “neither thanks” to “paper or plastic?”
In South Africa plastic bags have been dubbed the “national flower” because so many are seen fluttering from fences and dangling in bushes—-some report that at times it looks like a snow storm. According to the National Geographic News, between 500 billion and one trillion plastic grocery bags are consumed worldwide each year. That 100,000 birds die annually from encounters with plastic bags actually seems like a relatively small number—-ditto the estimated 100,000 whales, turtles, and other marine animals.
In the United State alone, 12 million barrels of oil are required to produce enough plastic bags to appease our needs. And then there’s that little decomposition problem: 500 years in the landfill.
OK, paper then, right? Well, actually. . .producing paper bags requires more energy and creates more air and water pollution than producing plastic bags. Recycling paper is much more energy-intensive than recycling plastic—-and then there’s the issue of all those trees. In 1999, 14 million of them were knocked out to create the 10 billion paper grocery bags we used that year.
Armed with this knowledge, here’s what we’ve decided: reusable shopping bags aren’t such a hassle after all. Here are some tips:
1. Pack some ultra compact nylon bags (that fold up into tiny packets) in your purse so that you are always prepared for unexpected errands.
2. Stow fabric (hemp, jute, canvas, cotton, recycled plastic textile, etc) bags in your trunk for big shopping trips-—just get in the habit of returning them to the trunk after unpacking groceries.
3. Reusing plastic and paper bags helps; keep a supply of them in your trunk for groceries and use them until they are too worn, then recycle. (Some stores, like Whole Foods, offer a rebate when you BYOB.)
4. Look French and use baskets when you go to the farmers’ market. Salad doesn’t get as squashed when you put it in a round-bottomed basket.
5. If you get stuck with groceries but without your totes, pick plastic: when statistics are compared, it is the lesser of the two evils. Try to reuse it again and when it comes time to recycle it, tie it in a knot to keep it from blowing away from the trash and landfill and into the trees and ocean. Some chain supermarkets, like Stop N’Shop, actually have a barrel in front for recycling plastic bags.
The best advice is to simply get into the mind-set: once it becomes habit the inconvenience disappears and it seems there was never another way. In fact, in 2002 Irish supermarkets began charging a mandatory 15-cent tax on each new plastic bag. According to one of the largest grocery chains the consumption of new plastic bags has dropped by 97.5 percent—-how’s that for inspiring? Clearly, the plastic bag will not be replacing the shamrock, so let’s follow that example. Here are some good places to start:
For cute and peppy totes: b.happybags
For a great selection of super-practical (including ultra compact): Reusablebags.com
For stylish bags and a 10 percent donation to protect sea turtles: Blue Lotus
One of our favorites—-packs of five wonderfully designed bags that fit in a pouch for your glove compartment or medium-size purse: Envirosax
By Melissa Breyer, Editor, Care2 Green Living.