The Grocery Dilemma: Paper Vs Plastic
So you find yourself at the checkout line with your cart full of groceries and the cashier smiles and asks the question that has spawned a thousand arguments. "Paper or plastic?" Now, we all know that the best answer for the environment is of course, neither. The most environmentally friendly choice is a reusable grocery bag. But in spite of our desire to make the best choice for the environment, most people still don't use them - mainly because we either forget them, don't want to carry them around the store, or don't have enough for all our purchases. Accepting that reusable bags are the best possible choice, but also that even the best-intentioned shopper will sometimes find himself at the checkout without them - let's take a quick look at the other two options.
Plastic - the bags are small, cheap to make, recyclable, and reusable for any number of tasks. Most plastic bags in grocery stores today are made of polyethylene, which is generally produced from natural gas. Natural gas is a very abundant resource but it is not renewable. While the plastic bags can be recycled, a very small portion of them actually are. Most of them wind up in landfills where it is estimated they will take anywhere from 500 to 1000 years to break down. While it is true that they are very small and take up little space in landfills, they will be there for a very, very long time. Another disposal solution is burning, which can create usable energy but also carries the byproduct of toxic ash from the inks used to print on the bags - which must be disposed of in toxic waste dumps. The process of making the bags is generally considered to be more environmentally friendly that paper bags, but whether this makes up for the disposal issues is a matter for debate.
Paper - these bags are recyclable, biodegradable, and reusable, as well as generally stronger than plastic bags allowing them to carry more items without requiring doubling up. They are made of course from trees - a resource which although it is renewable is not being renewed at the rate required to keep up with our consumption. Again at issue here is the fact that although they are recyclable, many people fail to do so - but they are recycled at a much higher rate than plastic. When these bags wind up in landfills they will break down in a relatively short period of time. However, it takes about 50 times more clean water to create one paper bag as it does plastic, among other huge amounts of resources required to produce these bags.
So which one is more environmentally friendly? It's hard to say. The most important thing to remember is that whichever bag you find yourself carrying home full of groceries, you can lessen the impact on the environment greatly by reusing and then recycling them. The best choice is still the reusable bag by a large margin - but by finding other uses for your plastic and paper bags, and making sure that they head for the recycle bin and not the landfill when they are no longer useful, you can be sure you have done much more for the planet than had you simply tossed them in the trash.