Paper or plastic

This past week, I came across a frightening little piece of literature put out by the American Chemistry Council on the topic of plastic bag recycling. This two-paged document spouted the claims that “plastic takes up a lot less space in landfills,” “it takes 91-percent less energy to recycle a pound of plastic than it does to recycle a pound of paper,” and — my personal favorite — “over 90 percent of Americans reuse their plastic bags” for such innovative uses as “pet pick-up,” which “prevents a second bag from being purchased to fulfill these necessary functions.”
Granted, these claims may be true. But there’s another story behind plastic bags beyond the space they take up in landfills, the energy required for their recycling and their use as accessories to dog walkers. For starters, beyond the mere space plastic bags take up in landfills is the ever-critical issue of how long they are there. An American Paper Institute study concluded that paper bags decompose in the landfill in about 3 months, compared to the 240-year estimate for petroleum-based plastic bags.
This brings me to another point the ACC “fact” sheet doesn’t address: the petroleum-derivation of plastic bags. Petroleum is, for all intents and purposes, a nonrenewable resource; it does not replenish itself as rapidly as humans can suck it out of the ground. Trees, the source of paper, on the other hand, can be renewed and renewed several times within a human lifespan, as long as sunlight, water, soil, and a little TLC is provided.
And, paper from trees is easily and commonly recycled. So, while it may take 91 percent less energy to recycle plastic bags, only 1-3 percent of plastic bags are actually recycled due to the absence of consumer recycling programs. The remainder reaches the landfill and takes 240 years to decompose. Fifteen percent of paper bags are recycled, on the other hand, meaning fewer new raw materials are needed for their manufacture.
Furthermore, the notion that plastic bags used in “pet pick-up” take the place of bags that would otherwise be purchased is — though possibly apt — irrelevant. Pet waste disposal bags could just as easily be paper bags, were not the prevalence of plastic bags so high.
But how did this prevalence of plastic bags increase so? Plastic bags debuted on the retail scene in the early 1980s, when its share of the bag market was about three percent. Since then, said Business Net blogger Deborah Boerner, plastic has grown to have more than half of the market. Many stores, though they have both paper and plastic available, do not even ask their customers that seemingly age-old question of which medium they prefer anymore; instead, customers must actively request paper in lieu of plastic if they so desire.
Meanwhile, the developing world didn’t miss a thing, and plastic bags are, quite possibly, more prevalent in the third world than they are in the first. They are used and reused many times: for household trash disposal — getting garbage to the nearest roadside ravine where they are frequently incinerated — human excrement disposal — where they stand in for toilets and then get tossed over the fence or into the river — and, if they do end up in a designated municipal dump, they can then be used as salvage materials collection receptacles by dump community children.
Plastic bags are even such a commodity in some developing countries that the demand for bags by consumers outstrips the ability of stores to provide plastic bags with purchases. Thus, manufacturers of plastic bags have started to decrease the quality and durability of their plastic bags in response to stores’ need for more plastic bags at the same total cost. These lower quality plastic bags, however, simply end up in the dumps and ditches sooner, eventually burning and releasing toxins and carbon dioxide, which pollute the air and lungs of the people of the developing world.
Plastic bags are a mess all across the board, in all parts of the world. But isn’t paper just as bad? Paper bags take up more space not just in the landfill, but also on distribution trucks, requiring use of more fossil fuels for delivery. And in truth, nothing much really decomposes in most modern landfills. So, what do you answer when the bagger asks you “paper or plastic?”
“Mine,” you answer, as you hand him or her the reusable bags you brought from home.
Sources: The Wall Street Journal,,,, BNet Business Net, Personal observations and study in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and the Philippines.