It's the inevitable question at most supermarkets, the cashier asks you whether you want to put your groceries in a paper or plastic bag.
It's a loaded question answered 5 times out 6 as "plastic please," most probably because shoppers find plastic bags more convenient due to their small bulk and also because they can be used to hold wet, daily household garbage. But what is the best answer environmentally?
My answer is always, "No thanks, I've brought my own."
Let's examine why.
Those free, single use, flimsy plastic bags handed out at supermarkets, drugstores, convenience stores and elsewhere are made of polyethylene and since plastic shopping bags were introduced in 1977 they have taken the world by storm until today over 1 trillion are used annually worldwide, about 100 billion in the U.S. alone. Less than 10 percent get recycled. Polyethylene is made from ethylene gas which is a by-product of oil or natural gas. About 14 million barrels of oil per year are used to make all those plastic bags here in the U.S.
That's enough gas to run all of our cars for a year.
Increasingly, natural gas is the basis for manufacturing polyethylene because it is cheaper and we have a lot of it in the U.S.
Plastic bags, like all plastics, do not readily biodegrade. No one knows how long it takes for plastic to ultimately biodegrade, estimates range from 100 to 1000 years. It is very likely that every piece of plastic ever made is still around somewhere. Those lightweight bags fly around all over the place carried by wind and water, pollute local and far distant shores, billions and billions of them. They are unsightly, toxic, drain clogging, animal killers. I definitely won't have anything to do with plastic bags.
But what about paper bags?
Paper bags were invented in the U.S. in the 1870's from 'kraft' paper. The word 'kraft' is German meaning strength.
Paper has been around for 6,000 years and you would think it's not a problem. That is not true unfortunately.
Paper requires enormous amounts of water both to manufacture and to recycle and large amounts of toxic chemicals for both processes. Most of that water becomes contaminated by the chemicals despite the best efforts of paper companies to prevent it.
Over 14 million trees a year are felled in the U.S. alone to make all those paper bags we use, even though a large percentage of bags are now made from recycled paper.
The other major problem with paper bags is that they are bulky and heavy. It takes 7 times as much energy to move paper bags from place to place across the nation as plastic bags.
On this basis alone I refuse paper bags when offered. I hope this information will help you to make the right decision when the cashier asks 'paper or plastic.'
Just say 'No thanks, I have my own reusable bag.'
You'll be doing our little planet a great favor if you do.
Reuse, Recycle, Refuse