August 6, 2013 > Letter to the Editor: The big "bag" theory
Letter to the Editor: The big "bag" theory
[Prior to the ban on plastic bags]
After wrapping up our weekly shopping, it was time for another difficult choice when the cashier mechanically spouted at me and my husband, 'Paper or plastic?' She was referring to what kind of bag we would prefer. It's an age old question. We've all been in the grocery store, at one time or another, and been asked this common question. Do you remember which you chose? Why did you make that particular choice? Moreover, was it an informed decision?
The paper vs. plastic debate has been big news since 2008. Today, in the era of environmental and ecological awakening, the question of plastic and paper bags should be taken seriously. Paper or plastic? It seems like it should be an easy choice, but an incredible amount of detail is disguised in each type of bag, from reusability and life cycle costs to durability.
For people who choose paper bags... it comes from trees. Approximately 10 billion paper bags are used in America consuming an average 14 million trees each year from FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) managed forests and non FSC managed forests. In FSC managed forests, every tree chopped down, is replaced by at least one - a renewable way of management. However, paper production requires thousands of gallons of water and consumes four times more energy and three times more water than plastic bag production. It takes 145,729 cubic meters of water to produce 100 million paper bags. Paper packaging is bulky and heavier, taking at least 10 times as much packaging as plastic bags. And, even though plastic is made from oil, paper production consumes a major amount of fuel and water.
Plastic bag production consumes approximately 12 million barrels of oil annually. Production is a streamlined process, beginning with oil industries mining and drilling oil operations, production of raw polyethylene (a byproduct of oil), bag production and screen printing. The entire plastic bag making process consumes electricity; it takes 5,527 cubic meters of water to produce 100 million bags.
Most of us think that, paper bags are better; they come from trees and can be recycled. However, the impact of paper and plastic cover two different ends of a spectrum. Paper bag production causes 70% more air pollution and 50% more water pollution than plastic bags. Paper production emits 80% more greenhouse gases. Consider millions of felled trees that could be absorbing carbon dioxide. Recycling takes 91% more energy than plastic. And it generates 80% more solid waste.
According to EPA, annually more than 380 billion plastic bags are used by Americans, of which 100 billion are plastic shopping bags; four billion of them end up as litter annually. With these litter bags, we could circle the globe 63 times or more. In 2006, the United Nations reported that every square mile of ocean has approximately 46,000 pieces of floating plastic, dangerous to marine and wildlife. For example, a floating plastic bag may look like Jellyfish to a Walrus, who then eats the bag. This may result in choking or intestinal problems.
New technologies are being developed to produce biodegradable plastic bags from biological substances such as corn oil. However, these bags generate higher level of eutrophication, acidification and emission of greenhouse gases than polyethylene plastic bags.
Another consideration: paper bags can biodegrade is less than one month, but can take centuries to degrade in landfill. Plastic bags takes 100 years to degrade, and can take 1000 years to degrade in landfill.
What conclusion can be drawn from this? It is time to change our habits. Reusable tote bags can be one solution. It is estimated that one cloth bag can replace approximately 1000 plastic bags in its lifetime. However, this is not the final solution, rather a beginning to think about reuse, recycling and waste reduction. Switching to durable tote bags, putting more items in fewer bags, avoiding double bagging, recycling and reusing disposable bags could bring significant reduction in use of vital resources and nonrenewable energy consumption, pollution, solid waste, greenhouse gas emission, litter, preservation of wildlife.
Dharti Krunal Shah
Editor's note: Although grocery stores in Fremont no longer offer a choice between paper and plastic bags, the debate over renewable resources and sustainable practices continues.