What plastic bags are made of
It's hard to tell by looking, but plastic bags are basically made
of oil. "They're petroleum products," says Peterson of the Sierra
The bags "start as crude oil, natural gas or other
petrochemical derivatives, which are transformed into chains of
hydrogen and carbon molecules known as polymers or polymer resin,"
says Halweil of Worldwatch.
"After being heated, shaped and cooled, the plastic
is ready to be flattened, sealed, punched or printed on," Halweil
Plastic bags for bread and vegetables first appeared
in America in 1957, and plastic trash bags made their debut in the
late 1960s. They've been practically everywhere since.
Paper or plastic?
If all you want is an environmentally correct answer to which free
bag is best, forget about getting that from the experts.
"Paper or plastic? Neither option is best. The better
option is to bring your own," says Peterson of the Sierra Club.
For Bateman, who represents a bag manufacturer, the
real question is what to do with bags after they're used. "In France,
they actually burn 30 percent of their bags for energy. Basically,
you recapture the value of the bags by turning it into electricity.
"That's really the answer to a lot of the waste-disposal
policies. Until now, it was much cheaper to buy coal, so you could
As far as his company's individual solution, it's
to make plastic bags less free. "Our solution is to sell, so people
value them," Bateman says. "We sell about 100 million bags a year,
and we think that's the correct solution."
International bag laws
Some countries actually have a national plastic-bag policy.
In January 2002, South Africa began requiring bags
to be more durable, and therefore pricier, to discourage disposal.
The result? A 90 percent decline in use.
And in Ireland, a new 15-cent-per-bag tax has decreased
use by 95 percent. Seven countries, including Canada and the United
Kingdom, have plans to tax plastic bags -- or ban them altogether.
Meanwhile, Tesco, a supermarket chain in the United
Kingdom, "just introduced a degradable additive to their bag so
they break down quicker," says Bateman.
"It's still debatable whether that's good or bad.
It will decrease its recyclability."
SUVs, fake food, and plastic
If you've experienced scathing looks in the supermarket after asking
for plastic, it may help to know that there are worse things you
"If you recycle your bags, but drive your SUV to the
grocery store, the gas-guzzling vehicle is having a much larger
impact," Peterson explains.
"And what you're buying there is important too. If
it's artificial cheese product, that's not helping either.
"What you drive and what you eat are the two biggest
decisions you can make, along with how much you drive," says Peterson.
"The third biggest factor is your household -- how big your house
is and how well-insulated it is."
"Your house is the biggest contributor to the environment,"
So don't worry so much about your bags, in other words.
"These individual choices to take canvas grocery bags
aren't something people should stay up at night tossing and turning
over," says Peterson.
"On the other hand, it really does matter," she says.
"Individual acts really do add up."
It's easy to use canvas bags, or reuse paper bags,
she says. "I would not want to encourage people to look at plastic
bags or any other consumption choices as either-or issues," Peterson
"There are good choices, bad choices and in-between
choices," she says.
"Another thing is the power of example. Some people
see me and think, there's the funny-looking lady and her bags, but
other people might see me and think, that's easy, I can do that."
Just use it again
Garbologist Rathje says it's not your bag choice as much as what
you do after you pick up that initial bag.
He strongly encourages reusing bags, and he doesn't
care whether what you're reusing is plastic or paper, as long as
"Take a bag when you go to the store that you can
reuse for something else. The more you reuse it, the better it is.
Even if you take your lunch in a paper or plastic bag, that's good.
The goal is to use it again for something else.
"If it's easier for you to do that with plastic, take
plastic. If it's easier with paper, take paper," Rathje says. "The
bottom line is that paper takes up more volume in landfills, but
you should use what you can reuse."