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Paper or plastic? What's the environmental choice?

Paper or plastic? Ever wonder which is actually the right choice?

Environmentalists, bag manufacturers and garbage specialists have all wondered the same thing, but they come up with different answers.

Plastic bags "end up in landfills, or on roadsides, or in lakes and streams, where they prove quite a hazard to wildlife, who choke on the bags," says Anna Peterson, co-chair of the Sustainable Consumption Committee of the Sierra Club, and a professor of environmental ethics at the University of Florida.

"The bags are like balloons," she explains. "Especially if there are crumbs in there. A raccoon might smell peanut butter and swallow the bag along with the crumbs."

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But plastic-bag manufacturers and garbage experts say that in the long run, plastic wins over paper.

"Paper bags are easier to recycle, but they weigh 10 times as much," says Robert Bateman of Roplast Industries, a bag manufacturer. "They use more energy and cause more waste in the process of manufacturing."

A paper bag eats up almost three times as much energy in the manufacturing process, says Bateman, who's also a past president of the Plastic Bag Association.

That's not something usually emphasized by environmentalists trying to reduce plastic use.

"Plastic bags come out on the right side of the equation on everything except the recycling side," Bateman says.

Is paper better?
Ask a professor specializing in garbage whether paper is better than plastic, and he'll say the equation is relatively easy to solve.

"The answer is very simple and very straightforward," says garbologist Bill Rathje, a fellow at the Archaeology Center of Stanford University and director of The Garbage Project, and a leading authority on what is in America's garbage.

"It's not one that the paper-bag people like to hear. In a dry landfill, paper bags don't degrade any faster than plastic bags. In a normal, well-run landfill, paper bags do not biodegrade any faster over at least 40 years than plastic."

The problem with paper is that it's fatter, he explains.

"Paper bags are much bulkier than plastic, so they fill up more landfill space," Rathje says. "They're three to five times bulkier than plastic, and you can see that yourself at the grocery. Landfills are closing down because they're full. From that perspective, plastic is much better than paper."

Flying bags
Environmentalists insist that the problem with plastic is that plastic bags don't always go gently into the landfill.

They point out what any beachgoer notices -- that some bags have active, high-travel lives before they ever get tossed into a trash can.

"They go airborne after they're discarded -- getting caught in fences, trees, even the throats of birds, and clogging gutters, sewers and waterways," according to Brian Halweil, senior researcher at The Worldwatch Institute, an environmental group.

Bag manufacturer executive Bateman says that a lot of the wildlife-are-hurt argument is based on anecdotal evidence.

"A seal eating plastic is very rare," he says. "Plastics are durable and light and tend to float. As far as damaging other wildlife is concerned, the worst of it is sort of anecdotal and not representative of what's going on."

Bag nation
One thing manufacturers, environmentalists and garbologists agree on is the number of bags out there. You're not hallucinating if you think your house is drowning in free plastic bags from newspapers, restaurants and grocery stores.

According to Halweil of Worldwatch, "No one knows exactly how many bags Americans throw away, but it is easily in the billions."

The plastic bag is winning the global popularity contest, manufacturers say, and part of that is because plastic is cheap.

"The paper bag is a mass-commodity product and is dying because of the costs involved -- specifically, because of the energy costs," explains Bateman. "Paper is energy-intensive compared to plastic.

"That's why the plastic bag has taken over the market, except in the U.S., where there's more paper and it's cheaper."

Recycling, anyone?
For some consumers and environmentalists, the solution is to recycle.

"We take our bags to our local Publix supermarket and recycle them," says Peterson. "Most people don't do that -- most people throw them out."

In fact, only 0.6 percent of bags are recycled nationwide, according to Worldwatch.

Some stores offer discounts for people who bring their own bags.

But America is only part of the bag market -- the rest of the world is definitely helping the numbers rise.

More than 200 billion plastic bags are consumed per year, according to reusablebags.com.

 

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-- Posted: Dec. 15, 2004

 

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