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Paper or plastic? What's the environmentally correct choice? -- Page 2

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 Club.

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 explains.

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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 waste plastic."

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 bags
If you've experienced scathing looks in the supermarket after asking for plastic, it may help to know that there are worse things you can do.

"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," Peterson says.

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 says.

"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 you reuse.

"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."

See also: 8 ways to reuse plastic bags



PAGE 1 | 2

-- Posted: Dec. 15, 2004


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