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Paper or Plastic

We’ve become accustomed to the regular question in the check-out line “paper or plastic?”. There has been a lot of debate over which is the better option from an environmental perspective, but the undisputed best response to the question is “neither”. Using reusable shopping bags is a simple and painless way for us to make a positive impact on the environment by reducing the amount of waste going to landfills.

The U.S. EPA estimates that each year people around the world use between 500 billion and one trillion plastic bags – more than 100 billion bags in the United States. Only 1% to 3% of these plastic bags get recycled. And while recycling does reduce waste, it isn’t a good solution from an economic standpoint. It costs about $4000 to process and recycle one ton of plastic bags, which can then be sold for approximately $32. Plastic bags are made of petrochemicals, a nonrenewable resource, and take hundred of years to breakdown. The many plastic bags that wind up in the environment pose a health hazard to wildlife (especially to birds and marine animals). In the U.S., San Francisco, Oakland, and Portland, Oregon have enacted bans on plastic shopping bags. Several countries have either banned plastic bags or mandated that stores charge a fee for each bag: Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Ireland, Israel, and South Africa. Several large stores, including Whole Foods and IKEA, now charge for bags that were once given away.

The news about paper bags is nearly as bleak. They require four times more energy to produce per-bag than their plastic counterparts. In 1999, 14 million trees were required to produce the 10 billion paper grocery bags used that year. This presents a “double whammy” for greenhouse gases, due to the energy required to produce the bags and the reduction in trees to absorb greenhouse gases. Toxic chemicals are also used in the manufacture of most paper bags, contributing to air and water pollution. The recycle rate for paper bags is higher – but only 10 to 15% of them have a second life. And for the great majority that ends up in the waste stream, they do not degrade or breakdown significantly faster than their plastic counterparts, due to the lack of light, water, and oxygen in modern landfills. And each paper bag in the landfill takes about 9 times as much space as a plastic one.

So consider using a reusable bag for everyday shopping. The “paper or plastic” habit is surprisingly easy to kick and is a simple step we can all take that collectively has a great impact.

DwellSmart has a wide variety of reusable bags for sale, including canvas bags, string bags, nylon bags, and even a reusable produce bag. Check them out in the Tote Bag section of our store. If you forget to bring a bag to DwellSmart, we’re happy to provide you with a corn-based, biodegradable bag.