Monday, November 22, 2010

Paper or Plastic?: Putting Plastic Bag Bans into Perspective

Following California's rejection of a proposal to ban one-use plastic bags, parts of of LA County have enacted their own such ban. They join other California cities including Fairfax, Malibu, Palo Alto and San Francisco. However, Californians aren't the only ones waging war against plastic. City officials in Brownsville, Texas voted to ban plastic bags this past January, and a mandatory ban will be in place by 2011.

Although these bans have the best of intentions, I wonder if legislators thought it through. Why ban plastic and not paper? While LA County is planning on charging $0.10 per paper bag, Brownsville doesn't address paper at all. Without paper bag disincentives, everyone who forgot to bring their bags from home are going to use paper. So, paper or plastic?
Plastic may not be the type of bag worth banning.
I HIGHLY RECOMMEND reading this blurb from the Washington Post. It is an engaging summary of the production, energy use, and recyclability of each option. If you don't have time, here's the deal:

Energy: A plastic bag requires 76% less energy to produce one bag, and 99% less energy to be recycled. However, paper bags are recycled 10 times more often because it is a cheaper process.
Winner: Plastic

Pollutants: Production of paper bags generates 70% more air pollution and 50 times more water pollution than plastic. 
Winner: Plastic

Biodegradability: Paper will biodegrade under certain landfill conditions. Some plastics will never degrade.
Winner: Paper

And the winner is... PLASTIC!

If they will cause an increase in paper bag use, are the bans worth it?

Things you can do with leftover bags:
  • Use them as trash bags, and line your garbage cans. 
  • Reuse them at the store. Who said you needed one of those fancy schmancy plastic bags? Those might even contain lead.
  • Moving? Traveling? Use them to pack shoes and things that might spill.
  • Need a lunch bag? You could even use them to carry your gym clothes. I feed paper bags to my worms. The opportunities are endless.

Note: Technology is always improving. If anyone has more recent numbers, please send them to me.

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