We’ve all been there. You get to the checkout line at your local grocery store and you’re asked the question. Paper or plastic? While one option seems to provide an obvious environmental benefit, the best possible answer might be “neither.”
It’s no secret that plastic shopping bags are bad for our environment, but you may be surprised to learn just how bad they really are. Today, it’s estimated that 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags are consumed and discarded annually worldwide. That’s more than one million per minute. Where do they go when they’re discarded? They accumulate in landfills, they clog up our sewers, they litter our beaches, they get stuck in trees, they clog recycling machines and kill marine life that mistakes them for food. They are one of the leading sources of pollution worldwide and have been found at the bottom of the ocean and at the top of Mount Everest.
The use of these plastic “t-shirt” bags had gotten so out of hand that, in 2008, China issued an outright ban. In doing so, they decreased overall use by two thirds and eliminated 40 billion bags. In India, the city of Delhi fines individuals found using plastic bags and threatens jail time for the companies that manufacture them. The United States hasn’t been quite as aggressive, avoiding nationwide bans and instead putting the power in the hands of local communities. So far, San Francisco has been the only US city to place an outright ban on plastic bags while others, such as Washington DC, have chosen to impose a per-bag fee of 5 cents. Both cities have seen positive results with significant reductions in the use of plastic bags.
You would think paper is the obvious choice over plastic. After all, paper is a renewable resource and a much better friend to the environment. Yes and no. It’s important to keep in mind that paper comes from trees. Lots of them. Every year, US consumers use billions of paper grocery bags whose production requires staggering amounts of natural resources (one gallon of water for every paper shopping bag!) and creates a great deal of waste.
So, back we go to the checkout counter and the question at hand. Paper or plastic? The best option might be to say “neither” and produce your reusable bag(s). We’ve all seen these eco-friendly bags and some of us may even have one or two kicking around the trunk of our car. They often get forgotten or fall victim to the convenience of not having to carry something into the store. However, if more consumers were to embrace reusable bags, the long term benefits would be substantial. To put things in perspective, individuals who use reusable bags stand to eliminate the need for 20,000 plastic bags over the course of a lifetime. other benefits of these bags include an ability to carry greater weight (usually 25-40 lbs.), soft handles that don’t dig into the hands and durability with most bags lasting for 3-10 years. With more and more stores offering money back to shoppers with reusable bags, they can also pay for themselves over the course of the first year.