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Earth Day Ideas: Paper or Plastic Should Not Be an Option

Posted Apr 19 2010 7:16am
Earth Day Ideas:  Paper or Plastic Should Not Be an Option

Earth Day is around the corner, and unfortunately, this day makes me cynical and snarky.  Perhaps it’s from years in education seeing teachers make token gestures to celebrate the day, or perhaps it is from years of blogging and reading Earth Day posts…whatever the cause, I’m afraid in many ways Earth Day has lost its meaning.  It feels more like a Hallmark holiday, so instead of writing a post about Earth Day in general (or sending you a card made from recycled paper), I thought it best to convey an idea that would be simple to implement and would make an impact.

Photo by robertgaal
Paper or plastic should no longer be the question

Paper or plastic should no longer be the question

Recently, I was contacted by the Oprah Winfrey Show to be a guest on their Earth Day episode.  Unfortunately (or fortunately) I did not make the cut, as they really didn’t want a mom living off-the-grid , just a green mom .  Anyhow, when contemplating the show, I thought of an easy green tip for all consumers to reach a mainstream audience:  bring your own reusable bags to every store!  Inspired by a recent trip to the store and watching a man take five plastic bags for five items, I became more than simply annoyed.  The more I thought about it, the more I thought this idea needs to be taken out of the hands of consumers and become a responsibility of retailers.

Many cities have attempted to ban plastic bags, such as San Francisco.   SFGate explains:

Fifty years ago, plastic bags starting first with the sandwich bag were seen in the United States as a more sanitary and environmentally friendly alternative to the deforesting paper bag. Now an estimated 180 million plastic bags are distributed to shoppers each year in San Francisco. Made of filmy plastic, they are hard to recycle and easily blow into trees and waterways, where they are blamed for killing marine life. They also occupy much-needed landfill space.

Unfortunately, the ban only applies to large grocers and pharmacies, and I have witnessed many plastic bags littering the streets of the City by the Bay.

Are paper bags really any better than plastic ones?   Reusablebags.com explains:

The answer to the “paper or plastic?” dilemma is: Neither. They’re roughly equal in pros and cons. While convenient addictions, they both gobble up natural resources and cause significant pollution…

In 1999, 14 million trees were cut to produce the 10 billion paper grocery bags used by Americans that year alone…

Paper sacks generate 70% more air and 50 times more water pollutants than plastic bags…

It takes 91% less energy to recycle a pound of plastic than it takes to recycle a pound of paper. But recycling rates of either type of disposable bag are extremely low, with only 10 to 15% of paper bags and 1 to 3% of plastic bags being recycled, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Both bags tend to be disposable, although some do end up being recycled. Either way, their life is much shorter than a durable, reusable shopping bag.  So how do we end the use of all plastic or paper bags by retailers?

One idea is for consumers to be charged a hefty deposit for every bag they require when checking out. Retailers supply reusable bags when customers forget their own bags, and the bags could be returned for the deposit.  Such a system could be modeled on local, organic dairies that sell milk in glass bottles with two dollar deposits consumers are sure to remember to return.  Of course, the bags would have to be durable and be washed between uses if stores were going to share them between customers.

Another idea that may be more favorable is to simply force consumers to buy reusable bags when they forget their own.  Most retailers sell their own reusable bags with their logos plastered all over them now.  To implement, vendors would need to replace all of their disposable plastic and paper bags with the reusable ones and charge consumers.  Most reusable bags sell for about 99 cents, and it would only take a few trips to the store before consumers would remember to bring back the ones they already bought or simply carry their purchases to their car or bicycle.

Our environment is often harmed in the name of convenience.  We live in a consumer culture, which is not about to change given our capitalist system; however, we can at least change how shoppers transport goods from store to home.  On this Earth Day, we need to have real action that affects all Americans.  Paper or plastic should no longer be an option!

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