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Placing Blame on Bags or Humans: The Great Debate

July 21, 2012

Are plastic bags really and truly an environmental threat?  California must think so, since over 48 cities in CA have banned plastic bags from the area.  We all know what happens: the occasional plastic bag stuck in a tree, on top of a fence, in a pond, endangering marine and freshwater wildlife.  But consider this—how do they GET there?  Do bags just float off the factory finish line by themselves and land like kites in trees, or like logs in ponds?  It’s a silly thought.  Of course they don’t.  Humans have put them where they are.  Car doors left open on a windy day, a bag thrown by the wayside after a Subway sandwich is consumed.  Instead of deprivation, have we ever considered education?

Irresponsible Users > Plastic Bags

So, here is the great bag debate.  The question: Is it better to use paper or reusable bags instead of plastic?  And here are the answers (however, you could technically call them more questions):

Choose to Re-use

Are you really choosing the environment when you buy reusable bags?  You do save by producing less trash, but are you actually using them?  Bringing them to the store can be the biggest challenge, since even yours truly often forgets to place bags back in the car once the groceries are unloaded.  As we speak, they remain on the garage shelf now.  Convenience is huge!  We like foldable bags, bags that save on storage space and bags that are easy to tote around.

Besides actually remembering to reuse, there’s also another danger: bacteria exposure from dirty reusable bags.  Choose a washable canvas bag that can be cleaned up regularly.  Make sure it’s sturdy too.  If the handles break, it will just end up in the garbage (and that’s not very green).

Paper Perception

What do you do if the reusable bags are forgotten, and you are faced with the question: “Paper or plastic?”  Sure, most people think paper is the greener choice.  But it all depends on how you look at it.  Are we talking about recycling?  Yes, paper is greener.  Paper is much more convenient to recycle, therefore more of it gets recycled.  But if we’re talking production, paper isn’t so green.  It takes 40% more energy (which releases more greenhouse gases, air and water pollution) to manufacture paper bags than plastic, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  It also takes more energy to transport paper bags because they are heavier than plastic.  That’s not all: they’re a lot more difficult to carry, and even with handles you risk a tear if you overload them.

Plastic Pandemonium

Here comes the notorious plastic bag.  Convenient, compact, lightweight and reusable.  They’re used at least one more time before they’re tossed out.  That, my friends is the big problem.  The “toss out.”  Recycle, Recycle, Recycle!  I can’t express enough how important it is to recycle those plastic bags.  Did you know that over 100 billion plastic bags are used by U.S. shoppers per year, but only a very small percentage of them are reused?  To most people, recycling is simply inconvenient, since most curbside programs won’t take them.  It’s easier than you think.  Most grocery stores (along with drug stores, Target, Wal-Mart, etc) have recycle bins for all types of plastic bags.  Simply drop them off.


Are you more confused than ever? All three have their pros and cons.  Ultimately, it comes down to us being more responsible as a culture.  It’s up to each and every one of us as a collective society to be aware of the impact we have on the environment.  It’s up to you to realize that you do make a difference.  Whatever choice you make, let it be a responsible and educated choice.  If you choose reusable bags, remember to bring them and keep them clean.  If you use paper or plastic, remember to recycle. 

You can bag up that advice, take it home and recycle it by sharing it with others!

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