[GRRN] Paper v. Plastic bags -Reply

Bill Carter (WCARTER@tnrcc.state.tx.us)
Mon, 29 Mar 1999 14:43:15 -0600

John Waddell wrote:

"Would you like Paper...or Plastic? A discussion (somewhat irreverent)
appeared in the February 1999 issue of Refuse News. The gist of the
article: it doesn't matter whether you choose paper or plastic.
Recyclability is a moot question if you don't do anything with the bags
once you get them home....

Most discussions I've seen on this question (following Prof. Wm. Rathje)
assume that disposable bags will find their way into a landfill and stay
there, end of story. In this view, the relative landfill volume contributed
by each bag is the only disposal issue involved (setting aside issues of
renewable vs. limited resources, toxic byproducts, etc.). However,
there are other "routes of environmental exposure" that bags often take,
and in almost all cases paper bags are less problematic, if not beneficial,
in strong contrast to plastic bags.

1. Recycling is not a "moot" issue. Many communities accept paper
grocery bags along with newspapers and/or other household paper for
recycling. None accept plastic grocery bags to my knowledge.

Paper grocery bags are perfectly suited for recycling together with OCC.
Almost all supermarkets recycle their OCC. The supermarkets that offer
plastic bag recycling, which [assuming it actually occurs] requires
painstaking sorting efforts to prevent contamination and has extremely
limited markets and applications, could much more easily accept paper
bags, recycle them with their OCC, and make money doing so. Their
plastic bag recycling efforts are clearly aimed more at easing customers'
consciences for choosing plastic, which the supermarkets prefer to use,
than at doing everything possible to recycle.

It has been pointed out that even the cost and waste volume advantages
cited for plastic are suspect, given how many more plastic bags than
paper bags are typically used to bag a given quantity of groceries.

2. Composting. Many households compost, and paper grocery bags are
perfectly usable in compost piles and especially in worm composting
bins. Communities with composting collection of yard trimmings and/or
other materials can readily accept and accomodate paper bags in the
mix. [Programs often provide large kraft bags for yard trimmings
collection since they are compostable.] Communities with mixed waste or
wastepaper composting systems get product out of paper bags but have
to screen out plastic bags for disposal.

3. Litter. A paper bag can cause very little harm as litter in the short time
before it decomposes into humus. Plastic bags are evident everywhere,
a major component of the aesthetic litter problem, especially as
impromptu flags in treetops, on fences, etc. Worse, they create choking,
entanglement, and other hazards to wildlife for a long time, including their
long life in the "cornflake" phase generally considered to be

4. Landfill fugitive litter. Plastic bags have a rather high rate of escape
(and possibly even recidivism) from landfills. Tornados lover trailer
parks, and whirlwinds love landfills. A very large part of the windblown
litter that escapes from landfill is plastic grocery bags due to their
excellent aerodynamic features, compounding the litter problems
discussed above.

5. The future of landfills. Decades or ages in the future, landfills will
erode and release some or all of their contents. The paper bags thus
released will quickly degrade and cause few problems (if any) compared
with the plastic bags, as discussed above.

It is clearly much better environmentally to use a durable bag or basket
for shopping than EITHER paper or plastic. Then again, the same is true
of refillable beverage containers in relation to all forms of disposable

I willingly confess that I ask for plastic grocery bags occasionally to
contain messy leaks and condensation from certain grocery items, and
also to re-use as liners for my messier garbage (wet wipes, oily/greasy
food waste, etc.). They certainly have their uses, but the down-side
should be clearly recognized.