Plastic Bag vs. Paper Bag Facts: Which is Better?
The growing concern about the waste of plastic and paper bags has many people puzzled as to what is the right thing to choose. Here are the facts.
The US uses about 100 billion plastic bags per year according to the EPA, and less than 2% is recycled. The virgin resin to make the bags costs less than the recycled resin, so it is not very profitable to recycle the bags. Most municipalities do not accept the bags in their recycling programs because they can clog the machines. The average family uses about 1,000 plastic bags each year. Most are used only once, but about 7% is reused to line trash cans, pick up dog waste, etc.
Plastic bags do not break down. The sun photodegrades the bags, which means that over time, the sun breaks down the plastic into smaller and smaller pieces. This is actually not good, as small particles can enter the food chain, particularly when the bags litter the sea and are accidentally mistaken for food by wildlife. In the water, the bags look like jellyfish and are eaten, leading to suffocation and sometimes entanglement. Millions of animals are killed every year by plastic bags. When an animal eats the plastic, it cannot digest it, so the toxins in the plastic remain, which humans can then ingest when they eat the animal.
There’s a place 1,000 miles off the coast of San Francisco called the Garbage Patch. It is about twice the size of Texas and can go as deep as 300 feet. It’s almost all plastic and it’s stuck in what’s called a twist. In fact, the water samples taken showed six parts of plastic to one part of plankton of food for marine life.
Plastic bag litter has been found on remote islands and has even floated to Antarctica. The environmental dangers of plastic bags have caused them to be banned or taxed in more than twenty countries. Bags clogging sewer lines were blamed for massive Bangladesh floods in 1988 and 1998, prompting the first nationwide ban in 2002.
Petroleum is needed to make plastic bags. China banned free plastic bags last summer and hopes to save 34 million barrels of oil each year. Ireland has a program called PlasTax that is credited with saving 400,000 barrels of oil.
Retailers switched to plastic bags in the late 1970s because they are significantly cheaper than paper bags and take up less storage space. It costs most retailers a couple of cents for a plastic bag and up to fifteen cents for a paper bag.
Paper bags are not necessarily better for the environment. It takes 14 million trees to make the 10 billion paper bags used in the United States. Also, it takes much more energy to produce a paper bag than a plastic bag. However, more municipalities accept paper bags for recycling and 20% of paper bags are recycled. The average family uses 400 paper bags per year. Although paper bags decompose, in landfills they often cannot do so because they lack the air and moisture necessary for decomposition.
One option that is gaining ground in the US is the reusable bag. Reusable bags only need to be used eleven times to have a positive environmental impact. One quality bag can save a couple thousand bags from the landfill. If you have trouble remembering your bag, look for one that folds into a self-storage pocket so you can keep it in your bag or pocket.
As more and more people are discovering, when asked paper or plastic? The answer really is none. Both cause significant damage to the environment and consume a lot of energy to produce. Consider answering: None. I brought my own bag.