Paper or Plastic?

And the winner of The Great Grocery Bag Debate is...

Alyssa Martino
5-minute read

Hi, and welcome to Make-It-Green Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for an Earth-Friendly Life.

Today's topic is grocery bags -- paper or plastic?

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I was sitting on the train one day, wrestling with that age old dilemma. When I was growing up, a new fad struck grocery shopping. Grocers would actually ask you which type of bag you wanted, before they put your groceries in them. They must have had on-the-job training for this sort of thing, because it seemed suddenly ubiquitous.

Paper bags were the epitome of eco-fashion, especially after scary news reports about turtles choking and birds drowning... because of the evil floating plastic bag. Recently, however, the pendulum seems to have swung the other way. I see no friendly bagging clerks asking me with a smile whether I wanted paper or plastic. Even if it's a tube of toothpaste, mindless automaton clerks who look like they haven't slept in days put your tiny tube into a huge plastic bag. No questions. Just... mindless... bagging.

If you do want a paper bag, or no bag at all, it can be quite a challenge. Walk into the grocery store for a pack of gum and say, "Oh, I don't need a bag, thanks." The usual response from check clerks is a stare that silently says either, "You are from Mars," or "If you don't want me to bag your gum, why did I come to work today?" Should we just let this awkwardness go and not press the issue? Well, if we take a closer look at grocery bags, a real cradle to grave analysis, we'll see that not only is this choice important, but it can have lasting effects.

Plastic Bags: Pros and Cons

Plastic bags began appearing in grocery stores in the 1970s. Like most plastics in our lives, they are made from petroleum products, so your plastic bag started its life (the "cradle" part) underground somewhere in an oil-producing country.

As if this wasn't already a point against the plastic bag, the end of its life (the "grave" part) usually involves a landfill where our bags sit until the Clinton years are considered ancient history. It takes anywhere between five to one thousand years for plastics to degrade in modern landfills, depending on the design and position in the fill. The US alone produces between one-half to one trillion bags a year. This corresponds to about twelve million barrels of petroleum that end up floating around on the streets or in the trash.

The city of San Francisco found these number so disturbing that it actually outlawed the use of plastic grocery bags. However, plastic bags only cost about a cent to make, can be used many times, and can be packed into a small space compared to the amount of volume they hold. In every economic analysis, they are the clear choice. For many households they are essential as well, serving double or even triple tours of duty as gym bags, lunch sacks, trash can liners, and rain gear.

Paper Bag: Pros and Cons

The cradle of paper bags is the same as most other paper products--a forest. Our declining world forests give us cause to reject paper bags, especially now as we are beginning to realize that those fourteen million trees we made into bags were cleaning up our souring air quality. Paper bags cost four times more than plastic to manufacture, and are limited in their durability and reuse potential. On the grave end, however, paper bags are more easily recycled than plastic bags; more recycling centers in America accept them over plastics bags; and they decompose much more quickly in the environment (courtesy of litterers) and the landfills (if your community does not have recycling programs).

Reuse: The Tie-Breaker

It seems from this admittedly shallow analysis that there's no clear winner here. If you're ever faced with the question again, it's better to ask yourself what's better for you, than what's better for the earth. Do you use paper bags for other things like crafts or storage? Do you use plastic bags for trash, like I do? Reuse is also one of the holy trinity of conservation, after all. Right up there with reducing and recycling.

The Other White Meat: Cloth Bags

If you're like me and mine, however, and you have more grocery bags than you know what to do with, it's time to invest in some permanent grocery bags. Yes, folks, permanent bags. Ones you can wash and reuse over and over, hundreds of times.

They come in all shapes and sizes and colors and styles now, so no need to worry about looking like a dork or a yuppie or whatever you want to avoid looking like. Crochet sacks, nylon parachute-like plastic bag imitators, beach bag totes, ballistic canvas, insulated, recycled cotton, fair trade, hand-made, almost any quality you want in your bags is out there. You just have to know where to look.

Try your favorite grocery store first--chances are they've got some totes with their logo on it for you to do some free advertising for them. If not, you can look at a store that sells purses and bags for a suitable grocery sack. When all else fails, try the Internet for ideas and websites to purchase from, or make your own.

I know many of your have already tried this. There is failure at first. You forget them at home. You buy more groceries than you have bags. You forget about the ice cream, and it melts and stains your favorite beach bag. You forget to ask the bagger not to put your groceries in plastic bags and then put them in your tote.

However, these trials can be overcome with practice, and a little adjustment of your habits. Buy lots of bags. Tons of bags. One for each car. One for work, one for home. One to leave with your bike. One at your sister's house. They're not so expensive (many are under $5) and they can last a lifetime. Above all, be firm with those baggers. Yes, they will look at you like you are from Mars. But isn't that better than having to move to Mars because we used up all the oil and cut down all the trees?

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You can find a transcript of this show at QuickAndDirtyTips.com, and all the other wonderful Quick and Dirty Tips Podcasts. Send your questions and comments to greengirl@quickanddirtytips.com or leave me a voicemail at 206-600-3051.