“Paper Or Plastic?”

Terry Brennan
Do It Green! Magazine

The question “Paper or plastic?” has become a routine part of our grocery shopping experience. Maybe you answer that question automatically, without even thinking. Or maybe you pause, wondering, “Which is better for the environment?” The answer is: neither paper nor plastic is the best choice. Did you know, for example, that most paper grocery bags are made from virgin paper? Recycled paper is just not strong enough to hold your groceries. Most virgin paper comes from wood pulp, which comes from trees growing in forests. Forests are not a renewable resource. Tree farms are, but forests are not. Every time you choose paper bags at the grocery store, you are contributing to the loss of forests. Worse, virgin paper is bleached using chlorine. The bleaching process leaves toxic residues, such as dioxin, in the paper and in our water systems. Plastic bags are just as bad. Plastic is made from petroleum, which is not a renewable resource. Every time you choose plastic bags, you are contributing to the depletion of the world’s oil supplies as well as the devastation of habitats where oil is found. Some plastic is biodegradable. Unfortunately, it has to be exposed to sunlight or to soil to biodegrade. Only a small percentage of the biodegradable plastic in landfills has that kind of exposure. Additionally, plastic may or may not be recyclable depending upon the type of plastic and your community’s recycling program. Only thermoplastic-type plastic (milk jugs, grocery bags, drinking straws, foam cups) have properties that allow for recycling. Unfortunately many recycling programs do not accept all thermoplastic products. You might be able to recycle milk jugs, but not grocery bags. A Report on 1999 SCORE Programs by the Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance offers a few statistics for you to consider:

  • Amount of waste created per year by an average Minnesotan: 2000 pounds.
  • Amount of paper recycled in 6-county metro area: 387,339 tons.
  • Amount of plastic recycled in 6-county metro area: 20,155 tons.
  • Landfilling of municipal solid waste (including paper and plastic) is on the rise. Currently 33% (1.8 million tons) of Minnesota waste is put into landfills.

Recycling bags, both paper and plastic, after you use them helps to cut down the amount sent to landfills or the amount burned in incinerators. The paper recycling process uses fewer trees, less water and less energy than does the production of virgin paper. Keep in mind that recycling paper still involves de-inking, bleaching and processing. Also, hauling paper from your curbside to the recycling plant uses energy and causes air pollution. The best answer to the “paper or plastic” question is: “Neither, thanks, I brought my own bags.” Canvas bags, especially if made from organically grown fibers, are convenient for you and easy on the environment. Just think: if you bring home 10 bags of groceries per week, you can save 520 bags in one year just by switching to cloth bags! Bringing your own shopping bags is one of the easiest ways you can start to make a positive difference for the environment. Read on for more ideas to cut down your use of paper and plastic products.

Instead of… Try this:
Recycling junk mail -Get your name off mailing lists
-Use envelopes and back sides of flyers for notepaper
Using virgin paper for school and home office supplies -Use notebooks and printer paper made with recycled paper
-Print or write on both sides of the paper
-Buy paper made from fibers such as hemp
Buying greeting cards and wrapping paper -Save and reuse greeting cards or make your own
-Save and reuse wrapping paper or use cloth instead and ask friends/relatives to reuse it for other gifts
Using virgin paper products (napkins, paper towels, plates, coffee filters, etc.) -Use cloth or other washable materials
-Buy paper products that are made from unbleached (or non-chlorine bleached) paper containing post-consumer recycled paper
Subscribing to newspapers and magazines -Cut down on your number of subscriptions
-Reuse newspaper (as wrapping, cleaning material, etc.) instead of recycling it
-Donate old magazines to hospitals, clinics, libraries, etc
Using disposable diapers (a major and unhealthy contributor to landfills) -Use cloth diapers (diaper services use cloth diapers and are more convenient than disposables)
Using plastic utensils -Bring your own eating utensils
Using plastic garbage bags -Use bags made from recycled plastic
-Reuse bags that were used to package other products (dog food bags, etc.)
Using styrofoam products (cups, takeout containers, etc.) -Bring your own cup
-Bring your own reusable food containers
Buying products packaged in plastic or individually wrapped products -Buy products packaged in recyclable containers that were made from recycled paper or plastic
-Buy products in bulk or that are refillable
Using plastic produce bags to hold produce -Reuse bags from your last shopping trip
-Go without. (Do you really need a bag to hold four potatoes?)

Arts: Environmental Packaging Arts: Junk Mail

“Paper or Plastic?”

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