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“Green” Busters #2: Will that be Paper or Plastic?

May 14, 2010

Is this the ultimate question for our times?

Our Next Episode in the “Green”Busters series deals with that ubiquitous question we are asked in grocery stores:
Paper or Plastic? In conducting our on-site research into carry-bag usage at local supermarkets, we have noticed that some shoppers feel that paper bags are the better choice when faced with “the question”. But if you just scratch the surface of the issue, you’ll see that both options have their pros and cons, and below are just a few.
As you’ll see below, we feel best option is to not use either: choose cloth.

View the animation as well: click here or the image above.

Single-Use Thin Film Plastic Grocery Bags

Pros

  1. Plastic bags can be melted & reformed into other objects; plastic can be strong, malleable, and lightweight.
  2. According to the Progressive Bag Alliance, Polyethylene uses less energy, oil and water than paper bags made with 30% recycled fibres.
  3. The same study shows that plastic grocery bags emit fewer greenhouse gases.
  4. While plastic makes up 18% of waste by volume and 7% by weight (plastic is a very light material), if plastic were to be replaced by other materials (like glass, wood, etc.) trash weight would increase by 150%, would weigh 300% more and energy consumed would increase by 100%.
  5. 93% of Canadians who reuse their plastic shopping bags two or more times, according to the Canadian Plastics Industry Association. Popular uses are for trash or pet waste.
  6. Plastic bags are impermeable to moisture, and as such can be used to hold wet objects and generally prevent cross-contamination; can be used as dog-waste bags, etc.

______________________________

Cons

  1. 2005 EPA research shows only approx. 5.5% of plastic bags are recycled. 94.8% of the bags end up in other places: landfills or (worse) elsewhere in our environment. Plastic bags are not recyclable at all in some areas.
  2. Most plastics only photo-degrade into smaller particles in sunlight, and even then may take anywhere from 500- 1,000 years.
  3. Plastic bags are a significant source of stray litter around the world. Unlike paper bags, plastic bags will persist for much longer in the environment.
  4. Plastic bags contribute to the great ocean garbage gyres and entangle or is mistaken by food by a wide array of animals and sea life.
  5. Plastic bag production uses finite resources –natural gas and petroleum products that could be used for other purposes. The oil needed to produce just 8.7 plastic bags could fuel a car for a distance of one kilometer. 9-15 billion – Number of plastic shopping bags Canadians use each year
  6. Plastic bags are not repairable, and seen as value-less and disposable. One small hole and it is trashed. Initial use time for plastic bags is about 5 minutes (from store to car to home).
Kraft Paper Grocery Bags

Pros

  1. A well-packed single paper grocery bag can hold the same volume as 4 plastic bags.
  2. Paper bags are compostable in home composters, and can be used as weed liners in home gardens. Paper bags will eventually break down into the soil.
  3. The paper recycling rate is comparatively very high: 56% of curb-side recycling in the US is paper, and paper recycling facilities are found even in smaller towns.
  4. Waste from paper recycling can be used to produce products like bricks and fertilizers.
  5. The main ingredient in paper-making: trees — are a renewable resource.
  6. Paper bags can be repurposed as wrapping paper, etc.

__________________________

Cons

  1. It takes one gallon of water potable to produce one paper bag. That’s 50 times more water than plastic bags require.
  2. Trees are found, marked, felled, machinery is used to transport them, thus destroying human, animal and plant habitats in the process.
  3. Paper bags react badly to moisture, dramatically reducing bag strength, and eventually causing a rip, making it unusable as a bag.
  4. Paper is heavy and the environmental costs related to transporting it at every stage are very high and fuel-intensive.
  5. Paper bags consume natural forest resources that could be used for other products like furniture or simply kept as natural carbon sinks.
  6. Making new paper as well as recycling paper is an energy and water-intensive process that uses still more toxic chemicals including sodium hydroxide. Hydrogen peroxide, and sodium silicate.

We at Pebble in the Pond Environmental Society have researched the facts and have concluded that natural organic fibre shopping are the most environmentally friendly option. While cloth bags do of course have an environmental impact through the growing of the plant used,  processing of the fibres, weaving, fabrication of the bags, and all related  transportation, we still feel that cloth is best as it is:

  • strong (can hold up to 40 lbs)
  • biodegradable/compostable
  • washable
  • reusable for many years
  • repairable
  • the cloth can be easily reused to make other things
  • relatively inexpensive

Our goal is to be able to manufacture the bags here in Powell River, using organic, fairly traded and possibly recycled cloth.  In the meantime, we have some interim branded Pebble in the Pond cloth bags available in Powell River at Ecossentials for only $5.

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