You hear it at the store: Paper or plastic?

Published 8:47 am Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Plastic bags vs. paper bags. The question still lingers out there. I wrote an article in March of 2005 about the dilemma and people are still confused or uncertain about the “right” choice. The answer is: “I brought my own reusable bag.” Maybe!

Some stores, including those in our area, encourage reusable bags by offering a small refund to customers who bring their own. Lately I noted that grocery and discount stores are selling cloth reusable bags. These bags can be put inside one another and kept in the trunk or back seat of your car so they are always with you. When they get dirty, throw them into the wash.

It requires 12 million barrels of oil a year to supply the U.S. with plastic bags. Paper requires five times the trucking energy as plastic to ship them to stores. It requires 40 percent more energy to produce paper sacks as plastic. Paper sacks are easily recycled but plastic is harder to handle. And, paper sacks take more room in the landfill if not recycled.

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There is a movement to do something about plastic bags. They litter fences, tree tops and along our roadways. Ireland has placed a tax on plastic bags and China has outlawed them altogether. One Chinese plant that manufactures the bags has already closed, with much controversy over jobs and economic implications. New York and California currently lead the nation in plastic bag recycling efforts. New York recently passed a law requiring any store in that city that uses plastic bags and occupies 5,000 or more square feet to establish an in-store recycling program for plastic bags. That legislation mirrors California legislation passed in 2006 which also encourages in-store recycling by consumers. It seems odd that in Minnesota we already do that, only voluntarily.

The message New York and California are sending is clear: plastic bags are a valuable resource. Laws that remove them have economic impacts, but recycling and reuse are an added value. That is not to say they are a better choice, but simply they do play a part in the bigger picture of solid waste and recycling. Plastic bags can also be reused for garbage, storage and many other uses.

Many people reuse plastic bags for garbage can liners and are handy for crafts, temporary containment, storage of clothing or returned to the store for reuse. The disadvantage of reusing plastic bags is they wear out and end up in the trash, unusable.

Remember, the production of plastic bags requires petroleum and often natural gas, both non-renewable resources. In a landfill, they do not degrade or break down. The collection system of plastic bags creates an additional environmental impact at an estimated 8 million pounds. The recycling effort of both paper and plastic requires energy for the collection of old bags, cost of processing and then re-distribution of the newly made bags. While it’s nice that people are returning bags for recycling, we can avoided them altogether with our own cloth bag from home.

Again we are back to the conversation concerning choices when we shop. We can reuse paper and plastic sacks around the home. They come in handy for recycling, a trash can liner and many other uses. Many of us end up with too many and then look for ways to dispose of them. A balance of our own cloth reusable bags, plastic bags and paper sacks seems like an appropriate plan. We are also able to take advantage of any discount for using our own bags, and still have others around the house.

People who use the cloth shopping bags will find them sturdy and able to hold more merchandise than a paper or plastic bag. For numerous small items this can be an advantage when unloading the car after a shopping trip. Some people may wish to make their own bags from scrap cloth to fit their individual shopping needs. Like many new things we try, once you do it you’ll probably be hooked.

Randy Tuchtenhagen is Freeborn County’s solid waste officer.