Growing concern over the waste of plastic and paper bags has many people puzzled over what is the right thing to choose. Here are the facts.
The US uses about 100 billion plastic bags per year according to the EPA, and less that 2% are recycled. Virgin resin to make the bags costs less than recycled resin, so it is not very cost efficient to recycle bags Most municipalities do not accept the bags in their recycle programs because they can gum up the machines. The average family uses about 1000 plastic bags each year. Most are used just one time, but about 7% do get reused to line waste cans, pickup dog waste, etc.
Plastic bags do not decompose. The sun photodegrades the bags, meaning that over time, the sun breaks down the plastic into smaller and smaller pieces. This actually is not good as the small particles can enter the food chain, particularly when the bags litter the sea and are accidentally mistaken for food by wild life. In the water the bags look like jellyfish and are eaten, causing choking and sometimes entanglement. Millions of animals are killed each year by plastic bags. When an animal eats the plastic, it cannot digest it, so the toxins in the plastic remain, which humans can then ingest when they eat the animal.
There is a spot 1000 miles off the coast of San Francisco called the Garbage Patch. It is about twice the size of Texas and can go as deep as 300 feet. It is almost all plastic, and is caught in what is called a gyre. In fact, water samples taken showed six parts plastic to one part plankton of food for the sea life.
Plastic bag litter has been found on remote islands and has even floated to Antarctica. The environmental hazards of plastic bags have caused them to be banned or taxed in over twenty countries. Bags clogging the sewer lines were blamed for the massive flooding of Bangladesh in 1988 and 1998 prompting the first national ban in 2002.
It takes oil to make plastic bags. China banned free plastic bags last summer and expects to save 34 million barrels of oil each year. Ireland has a program called PlasTax which is credited with saving 400,000 barrels of oil.
Retailers switched to plastic bags in the late seventies because they are significantly cheaper than paper bags and take up less storage space. It costs most retailers a couple of pennies for a plastic bag, and up to fifteen cents for a paper bag.
Paper bags are not necessarily environmentally superior. It takes 14 million trees to make the 10 billion paper sacks used in the US. Plus, it takes significantly more energy to produce a paper bag versus a plastic bag. However, more municipalities accept paper bags for recycling, and 20% of paper bags are recycled. The average family uses 400 paper bags per year. Although paper bags decompose, in landfills they often cannot because they lack the air and moisture needed for decomposition.
One option making headway in the US is the reusable bag. Reusable bags need only be used eleven times to make a positive environmental impact. A quality bag can save a couple thousand bags from the landfill. If you have problems remembering your bag, look for one that folds into a self-storing pocket so you can tuck it in your purse or pocket.
As more and more people are discovering, when asked paper or plastic? The answer really is neither. Both cause significant harm to the environment and use up a lot of energy to produce. Consider answering: Neither. I brought my own bag.