You’re standing in the checkout line at the grocery store and you’ve made enough decisions for one day. You decided what you’ll be eating all week and what you’re having for dinner tonight. You’ve taken the time to choose which brand of non-toxic dish soap is more likely to cut grease. You even decided whether to pay with cash, a check, debit, or credit. But there’s one more decision you’ve yet to make. When the question is asked, it can confuse and distress even the most seasoned shopper who cares about the environment (and since you’re reading OLM, chances are you do care). Yes, your last decision might be a tough one. Are you ready? Here it comes: “Paper or plastic?”
Many shoppers don’t know which choice is better for the environment. After all, plastic is recycled, isn’t it? Should we be cutting down trees to make paper bags? Grocers seem to prefer plastic. Does that mean it’s better?
Plastic grocery bags are light, sturdy, and easy to carry because they have built in handles. They also have the added advantage of providing a bit of protection from foods that might leak. They’re cheaper than paper. They require less energy to produce than paper bags. When they are compacted, they take up less space in landfills. And some supermarkets make it easy to recycle plastic bags right there at the store.
Unfortunately, plastics have many downsides. Plastic bags are made from non-renewable petroleum resources. They can be recycled, but not as easily as glass, aluminum, or paper, partly because the bags may be made from one of several different plastics. This makes separating plastics for recycling difficult. And for the most part, plastic must be recycled into a product for non food use.
Plastic production and processing require the use of toxic chemicals. Many manufacturing plants that produce these chemicals also produce hazardous waste and pollute the air. In 1986, the Environmental Protection Agency ranked the top 20 chemicals whose production generates the most hazardous waste. Five of the top six were chemicals commonly used by the plastics industry (propylene, phenol, ethylene, polystyrene, and benzene).
Some plastic bags are said to be biodegradable, but biodegradation takes place when air is present. Photodegradation occurs when sunlight is available. Most of the garbage we generate (about 95%) is landfilled. In landfills, garbage is buried beneath layers of soil where it’s s a little difficult for air or sunlight to reach it. The fact is, most plastic bags just don’t degrade, even in a compost pile. Estimates say those plastic bags will take 1000 years to decompose. Others say they never will.
The truth is we use them once and rarely recycle them. Americans throw away about 100 billion plastic grocery bags a year. Only 0.6%—less than 1%, are recycled! Plastic bags clog our sewers, pollute our rivers and lakes, collect on our beaches, churn in toxic islands of debris in our oceans, threaten our wildlife and our ocean life, and litter our land.
Brown paper grocery bags need to be so strong they are generally made from high quality paper with little recycled content. And though they are made from a renewable resource, trees take a long time to grow and paper mills pollute both the air and the water.
Paper bags can be recycled. They are often used to make corrugated cardboard. Paper bags are also biodegradable, but again, the process is not facilitated in landfills.
So which should you choose? Neither, of course. You should carry reusable cloth bags. But if you don’t have any with you, Whole Foods has made the decision easy. They’ve stopped carrying plastic bags.
“More and more cities and countries are beginning to place serious restrictions on single-use plastic shopping bags since they don’t break down in our landfills, can harm nature by clogging waterways and endangering wildlife, and litter our roadsides,” said A.C. Gallo, co-president and chief operating officer for Whole Foods Market. “Together with our shoppers, our gift to the planet this Earth Day will be reducing our environmental impact as we estimate we will keep 100 million new plastic grocery bags out of our environment between Earth Day and the end of this year alone.”
“Doing away with plastic grocery bags won’t just help protect marine life, it’s a key move in shifting us away from a ‘consume-and-dispose’ mentality,” said Lisa Mastny, editor of the Worldwatch Institute report Oceans in Peril. “Disposable plastic bags can linger in the environment for more than 1,000 years and are the major debris item found on the seabed, especially near the coast.”
“During our International Coastal Cleanup each year, our volunteers find hundreds of thousands of bags on beaches and in the ocean posing a threat to birds, turtles and other marine life. As people continue to learn more about the impact their lifestyle has on the environment, we find they are looking for personal solutions to global problems,” said Laura Capps, senior vice president of communications and outreach with Ocean Conservancy.
Last year, Whole Foods Market became the first and only food retailer in North America to offer 100 percent recycled fiber content paper bags, which also are completely recyclable and they have handles. “I am not sure why anyone would think you can’t make quality paper bags out of 100% recycled paper,” says Deborh Horgan of Whole Foods. “I think ours are pretty good.”
So do we. But Whole Foods agrees with us: reusable bags are the best. Whole Foods encourages their customers to bring in any kind of bag, used paper, plastic, cloth, even backpacks and baskets. They also sell a 99 cent “Better Bag,” a reusable bag made from recycled plastic bottles.
So keep a stash of used bags in your car as well as your cloth or canvas bags. Reuse and recycle. We’ll all get the hang of it. All we need to do is practice.