So which will it be then, paper OR plastic, hmmm? The question is tough to avoid, unless you've figured out how to eat without EVER going to the grocery store. Chances are, most of us haven't given the choice too much thought - or if we have, we remained clueless as to which was the lesser of the two evils. Understanding the impact that paper and plastic bags have on the environment is a great place to start. Inevitably, consciousness will lead you to purchase a canvas or otherwise re-useable bag for your grocery shopping, but educating yourself on the differences between paper and plastic is also a smart idea.
The Troubles With Paper Bags
It's common knowledge that paper comes from trees that are found and later felled by the logging industry. Logging involves machines -- from the machines used to remove the trees from the forests, to the logging trucks or helicopters involved in the process of harvesting, to the machines used to strip the bark - and like anything involving machines, fossil fuels are not far behind. Forest habitat is destroyed in the process, and surrounding ecology is negatively impacted. Sources say that "in 1999, 14 million trees were cut to produce the 10 billion paper grocery bags used by Americans that year alone."
Paper Bags and Recycling
After a paper bag is used, it will either end up in a landfill or it will be recycled. Eventually, after many years, the paper bag will break down in the landfill. At the recycling center, through the use of chemicals to break down the materials and clean them, the paper becomes pulp once more. Paper bags eventually break down and can be composted, unless they are covered with printing and ink.
The Saga of the Grocery Store Plastic Bag
Some people overlook the fact that plastic, like other products with a petroleum base, comes from oil, which is drilled from the earth, piped or trucked and later refined. Some properties of oil are manipulated into five principal types of polymers, during the process by which plastic is made from oil. Plastic bags are made from one of these five types, known as polyethylene, which is a highly manipulate-able material - it's re-useable, printable, and can be formatted into a variety of shapes, sizes and colors. Although the process of making plastic requires energy and may in fact do little else to damage the environment, the negative effects of oil drilling are numerous.
Plastic Bags and Recycling
In some ways, plastic bags are no different from paper - including the fact that post-use, they either end up in a landfill or they get recycled. In the landfill, however, it will not compost, and actually interrupts the breaking down of other garbage products with which it is mixed in the landfill. In most cases, to recycle the material, one merely has to melt it down (thereby sterilizing it) and then form it into another shape, for instance, a new bag. Recycling of plastic bags can take place many times before the material becomes too brittle to go through the process; after these stages of recycling, it can still take on another use as a different functional product.
When plastic is burned during recycling, it can create dioxins and release heavy metals into the atmosphere; the ash from burning plastic is toxic and needs special consideration during disposal. In landfills, plastic does not break down - it always remains plastic, maybe just in smaller pieces that mix in with the earth.
So Which Is Better? Paper or Plastic?
On the plus side, both materials can be recycled, and both materials have multiple uses beyond the initial holding of the groceries. The manufacture of both paper and plastic bags burns through natural resources, and both cause damage to the environment during production. While paper is more recycle-able than plastic, it also results in the destruction of more resources through the process of paper production. I think if you are going to use paper OR plastic bags at the super market, I would say to make sure you maximize the uses you get out of either, and more importantly, be sure to recycle.