'Paper or plastic?'

July 30, 2013 

Every time we go to the grocery store we're asked this seemingly simple question, "Paper or plastic?" When I forget to bring my own reusable bags for check-out, I ponder various scenarios. Do we need more paper bags at home for bundling our paper recycling or for any other beneficial uses? Plastic bags are certainly convenient and take up much less space for storage, but don't they negatively impact the environment? It seems I am overdue for a more informed response to the simple question, "paper or plastic?"

My research reveals that there are two sides to this issue. The plastics industry is very convincing in its argument that "plastic bags require 70% less energy to manufacture and transport, generate 50% less greenhouse gas emissions, and create 80% less waste" than paper bags plasticsmythbuster.org). This makes sense when you consider the more complex design and bulkiness of paper bags compared to plastic bags. Plastic bags are extremely lightweight, easy to mass produce and are recyclable. So why not choose plastic?

For one, I know from experience that plastic bags along the roadside do not biodegrade but break down into smaller and smaller pieces that contaminate the soil and waterways. In oceans, filter feeding marine animals digest these plastic pieces including their toxins, which then get passed on to predators and human consumers. In California an estimated $33 to $103 million is spent every year to protect our waters from plastic bag litter that clogs precious waterways and damages water treatment machinery. Annually, approximately one billion shopping bags are used by Americans, creating 300,000 tons of landfill waste. Plastic bags are recyclable (do you return yours for recycling?) but reportedly, less than 1% of used bags are collected and the cost effectiveness is marginal. Of course, Eastern Madera County is not adjacent to the ocean, but there are many streams, lakes and creeks in the area, all with aquatic life.

One solution is the increasingly popular plastic bag banning ordinance currently adopted by 77 cities and/or counties in California. Many of these ordinances also allow for a small fee to be charged for paper bags. So get that dime or quarter ready or pick the best solution of all. It involves a small one-time investment, has no negative impact on marine life or waterways, does not contribute to roadside litter or overburdened landfills, provides a chance to choose a stylish accessory, and gives peace of mind that you are making the best choice possible for the environment - bring your own reusable bags!

Resources: www.plasticsmythbuster.org; www.cawrecyles.org; www.cleanair.org.

Article written by Jean Russell and submitted by Keep Our Mountains Beautiful. This monthly column for the Sierra Star is intended to increase awareness and provide education regarding recycling, littering and community beautification.

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