Paper or plastic…or reusable? The debate

It happens almost every time: I park my car, get out and start walking toward the entrance to the grocery store. A few steps later – sometimes less, sometimes more – a turn on my heel, pop open the trunk and grab a couple of reusable bags. Call it the transition phase: I don’t always immediately remember to bring my own bags, but they’re usually close to hand.

In that regard, I’m like many people who are getting into the habit of bringing their own bags instead of relying on the plastic ones provided by the merchants. It’s one of the few instances where we’re going back to what our grandmothers did.

Watching people lug their own bags and baskets into supermarkets, I’m reminded how women like my grandmother used to sport their own shopping bags, and could be seen lugging items home in a pull-cart. That certainly was far more environmentally friendly than exchanging plastic for cotton then dumping the groceries into the back of an eight-cylinder SUV.

As we debate the future of the plastic bag, it’s easy to forget they’re a relatively recent issue in the numbers seen today.

When I was growing up, groceries were packed in paper bags. Later, “paper or plastic” entered the equation, giving way to plastic by default – first introduced in the 1970s, the bags became ubiquitous, accounting for four out of every five used at the supermarket.

So successful has been the transition, that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates upwards of one trillion plastic bags are manufactured worldwide each year.

In the last few years, however, the bag has become a symbol of our disregard for the environment. The resultant backlash led to bans in some jurisdictions, while others have imposed a per-bag cost on convenience. The latter can be seen in grocery stores around here.

There are plenty of good reasons for cutting back on our use of plastic bags. While recycling programs do exist, participation rates are typically low. The bags are made from petroleum, with each placing a demand on dwindling supplies. Many simply end up in landfills where they can take decades to decompose. Worse still, many of the bags simply scatter, their shape and light weight allowing the wind to move them with ease. The result can be unsightly trash gathering in ditches and hedgerows. But more seriously they end up in waterways, where marine mammals try to eat them or choking birds and other wildlife.

Plastic bags and other trash wash up on far distant shores, even in some of the most pristine locales. Images of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – a collection of our junk, much of it plastic in various stages of disintegration, estimated at twice the size of the state of Texas – are a revealing indication of just what
we’re capable of doing to the planet.

With all that downside, however, there is still an argument to be made in support of the lowly plastic bag.

Perhaps like me you use bags to line your trashcan. Others use them for scooping up Rover’s offerings. Or perhaps as lunch bags or general totes (though hopefully not the same ones used for the first two examples). That would adhere to the second of the three Rs (reuse), though perhaps the first (reduce) is more applicable here.

The plastics and packaging industries have naturally attempted to counter the anti-bag movement, in much the same way they’ve joined in on the backlash against bottled water. Self-serving, obviously, but there are some points to ponder. Plastic bags are in some ways more environmentally friendly than the former mainstay of grocery shopping, paper.

According to the Film and Bag Federation – yes, there is such a group, part of the plastics industry –
plastic bags require 40 per cent less energy to produce than paper, generate 80 per cent less solid waste and produce 70 per cent fewer atmospheric emissions. Their lighter weight makes them easier to transport, saving fuel on both the distribution and recycling sides.

Transportation costs – in dollars and energy – also come into play with the argument against reusable plastic bags, which are about 15 times heavier and often made overseas versus the domestically made plastic bags. Even reusable cotton bags have their problems given that cotton is both fossil fuel intensive and reliant on pesticides.

According to the Pesticide Action Network of North America, conventionally grown cotton uses more insecticides than any other single crop – more than 10 per cent of the world’s pesticides and nearly 25 per cent of the world’s insecticides.

The choice, then, may not be as easy as it seems at first blush. Still, coming first on the list of three Rs, reduce should be the first priority. Ireland provides a great example of the benefits. Green and verdant, with plenty of waterways and surrounded by water, the country found itself blighted by plastic bags. An early proponent of levying fees on the bags, it placed a tax of 15 cents (more than 20 cents Canadian) on each bag. From an estimated 1.2 billion plastic bags given out annually in Ireland – roughly 328 bags per capita per year – that number fell to 21 bags per capita.

The country’s National Litter Pollution Monitoring System showed that before the levy, five per cent of all litter was plastic bags. By 2006, that figure was 0.5 per cent.
There’s the rationale for the switch, and why my grandmother had it right in the first place.

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