Paper vs. Plastic. The shopping bag debate.

First, I’ll say–neither! Bring your own reusable bags. But if you have to here’s the skinny. For the full article please go to GREENFEET.net and spread the word.

PAPER?

Paper comes from trees – and lots of them. The logging industry is huge and the process to get that paper bag to the grocery store is long and environmentally taxing. First, the trees are found, marked and felled. Machinery is then used to remove the logs from the forest floor- whether it by logging trucks or, in more remote areas, helicopters.

Machinery requires fossil fuel and roads (which destroys habitat) thereby creating stress on the forests’ inhabitants (Even logging a small area has a large impact on the entire ecological chain in surrounding areas).

Trees must dry at least three years before they can be used. Machinery is used to strip the bark, which is then chipped into one-inch squares and cooked under tremendous heat and pressure. This wood stew is then “digested” with a limestone and sulphurous acid for eight hours. The steam and moisture is vented to the outside atmosphere, and the original wood becomes pulp. It takes approximately three tons of wood chips to make one ton of pulp.

The pulp is then washed and bleached, both stages requiring thousands of gallons of clean water. Coloring is added to more water, and is then combined in a ratio of 1 part pulp to 400 parts water to make paper. The pulp/water mixture is dumped into a web of bronze wires, the water showers through, leaving the pulp, which, in turn, is rolled into paper.

Whew! And that’s just to make the paper. We must include all of the chemicals, electricity, and fossil fuels used in the shipment of this raw material and in the production and shipment of a finished paper bag.

AND PLASTIC? Where does that plastic bag come from?

Plastic is a petroleum product – it comes from oil. As we all know, the oil industry is no small potatoes and is the cause of worldwide financial and political turmoil.

Traps of oil are located around the planet. Once a trap is located, a hole is drilled and a pipe is rammed into the oil deposit. The oil is forced to the top of the surface due to both the pressure inside the chamber and the weight of the earth above. Once a pump is in place, the whole operation is fairly simple and little oil is lost. The pumped oil is either piped or trucked to a refining facility where plastic is made.

Plastic is a by-product of oil refining and accounts for 4% of the worlds total oil production. It is a ‘biogeochemical’ manipulation of certain properties of oil, into polymers. Plastic polymers are manufactured into five main types; plastic bags are made from polyethylene. Polyethylene, as a raw material, can be manipulated into any shape, size, form or color. It is watertight and can be made UV resistant. Anything can be printed on it and it can be reused.

For the most part, the whole process of making plastic bags requires only electricity (minus the large, fuel burning heavy machinery required to acquire the oil). The electricity used in the actual production and manufacturing of plastic bags comes from coal fire power plants, which, it is interesting to note, 50% of that electricity is generated from the burning of old tires (made from rubber which is essentially, plastic).

Where does plastic go when thrown away?

Like paper, plastic bags can end up in two places: the landfill or the recycling center. If a plastic bag ends up in a landfill, it will stay intact for thousands of years. Plastic does not compost. With plastic products in the mix, garbage does not have a chance to break down over time. Landfills are considered airtight, which explains why after 20 years you can find a hot dog that is still fully intact and a newspaper with articles clearly legible.

Plastic is fabulous in that it is recyclable. All you have to do is basically re-melt and re-form. The re-melting process also sterilizes the plastic thus allowing any recycled plastic to be made into hospital grade products. Plastic can be recycled many times before it becomes brittle – then it can be made into something as functional as a mousepad or a doormat. Please note that not all plastic bags can be recycled and many stores that collect them, simply send them to the landfill for lack of another alternative.

Note too that most people DON’t recycle their plastic bags–and shop owners need to be more responsible in teaching their staff to only give bags for one or two items if customers ask. Buying a bottle of water and putting in a plastic bag outrages me! BE CONSCIOUS of actions. I often tell clerks I don’t need a bag-hoping they will think twice next time. Plastic ends up in streets, dumps and oceans where animals and birds swallow or get tangled in them, often suffocating or stangeling themselves.

Read more in-depth information at www.greenfeet.org

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2 thoughts on “Paper vs. Plastic. The shopping bag debate.

  1. very interesting read, seems like plastic is definately the more “green” way to go but only if people actually started to recycle the things or dispose properly, and not just throw them out – dont think that’ll happen anytime soon tho

  2. I have reusable shopping bags, but when I do get bags from the store, I do choose plastic (except at Trader Joe’s which doesn’t have them—I try to be extra vigilant there.)

    I use and use the plastic until they get holes in them, and then OF COURSE I recycle them. Many supermarkets have recycling bins for used plastic bags. I’ve checked, and they really do. Recycle them, I mean.

    Thanks for the great reminder! So many people think that “paper” is the best choice as they do break down, but it’s better to throw away as little as possible.

    I’m trying to get my colleagues to cut down on office paper, too!

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