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Plastic Bag vs Paper Bag Facts – What is Best?

The growing concern over the waste of plastic and paper bags has left many people wondering which is the right one to choose. Here are the facts.

The US uses about 100 billion plastic bags annually according to the EPA, and less than 2% are recycled. Virgin resin to make the bags costs less than recycled resin, so recycling the bags is not very economical. The average family uses around 1000 plastic bags each year. Most are used only once, but about 7% are reused to line litter boxes, pick-up dog waste, etc.

Plastic bags do not decompose. The sun photodegrades the bags, meaning that over time, the sun breaks down the plastic into smaller and smaller pieces. This is actually not a good thing as small particles can enter the food chain, particularly when the bags litter the sea and are mistaken for food by wildlife. In the water the bags look like jellyfish and are eaten, causing drowning and sometimes entanglement. Millions of animals are killed every year by plastic bags. When an animal eats the plastic, it cannot digest it, so the toxins in the plastic remain, which humans can then ingest when they eat the animal.

There is a spot 1000 miles off the coast of San Francisco called the Garbage Patch. It is about twice the size of Texas and can reach up to 300 feet. It is almost all plastic and is caught in what is called a gyro. In fact, water samples taken showed six parts plastic to one part plankton food for marine life.

Debris from plastic bags has been found on remote islands and has even floated to Antarctica. The environmental dangers of plastic bags have caused them to be banned or taxed in more than twenty countries. The bags, which clog sewer lines, were blamed for massive floods in Bangladesh in 1988 and 1998, prompting the first national ban in 2002.

Oil is needed to make plastic bags. China banned free plastic bags last summer and expects to save 34 million barrels of oil each year. Ireland has a program called PlasTax which is credited with saving 400,000 barrels of oil.

Retailers switched to plastic bags in the late seventies because they are significantly cheaper than paper bags and take up less storage space. At most retailers it costs a couple of pennies for a plastic bag and up to fifteen cents for a paper bag.

Paper bags are not necessarily environmentally superior. It takes 14 million trees to make the 10 billion paper bags used in the US. In addition, it takes much more energy to produce a paper bag versus a plastic bag. However, more municipalities accept paper bags for recycling and 20% of paper bags are recycled. The average family uses 400 paper bags per year. Although paper bags do decompose, landfills often cannot because they lack the air and moisture they need to decompose.

One option that is making progress in the US is the reusable bag. Reusable bags are only needed eleven times to have a positive environmental impact. A quality bag can save a few thousand bags from the landfill. If you have trouble remembering your bag, look for one that folds into a pocket that stores itself so you can put it in your purse or pocket.

As more and more people are discovering, when asked for paper or plastic? The answer is really neither. Both cause significant damage to the environment and consume a lot of energy to produce. Consider answering: Neither. I brought my own bag.

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