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Paper or Plastic? Oh, so Passé!
By Victoria Randolph   View more articles by this author
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March 10

What weighs virtually nothing, is less than a fraction of a millimeter in width, and is choking the planet?   Two points if you answered plastic shopping bags.  Extra points if you already use or are planning to start using reusable shopping bags in 2010!

Known to many as the “plastic tumbleweed” or “state flag,” plastic bags have become quite an eyesore. They are a ubiquitous part of the American landscape and can be seen waving from tree tops alongside every highway. 

If you haven’t starting using greener shopping bags yet, don’t feel bad.  Between kids crying for candy bars, trying to get home in time to make dinner,  and wondering how you’ll afford to pay the cashier, most people just don't have a chance to worry about what their groceries are being put into.  But now that you are quietly and comfortably sitting at your computer, here are some figures to think about.

  • How long does it take for a plastic bag to decompose?  500 to 1,000 years.
  • How many plastic shopping bags are used each minute?  More than one million.
  • How many plastic bags have been produced since their conception in 1977?  About 5 trillion.
  • What does 5 trillion look like? 5,000,000,000,000,000—That's a lot of zeros, but the actual number is incomprehensible to our human mind.
  • How many barrels of oil are used to feed U.S. plastic bag habits each year? 12 million.
  • The average person's plastic bag legacy will last more than 4 million years.
  • The petroleum used to make just 18 bags could fuel a car for one mile!


Plastic bags are supposedly biodegradable and recyclable, right? So what's the big deal? Recycling is a nice idea, but probably less than one percent of those bags actually get recycled. And even then, it's a complicated, iffy process that uses a lot of energy. As far as the biodegradability goes, landfills are designed to be airtight.  If the bags do somehow get exposed to sunlight and water (like maybe in those tree tops) they break down into billions of tiny plastic pieces that then contaminate the air, soil, rivers, lakes and ground water.

Okay, so let’s back off of the depressing facts and move on to how you can make a difference.  It's really not difficult carrying your own bags.  It just takes some getting used to.  Ideally, organic cotton bags are the best; many local nonprofit groups offer bags sporting logos for a donation.  But realistically, cost is the driving force these days, so cheap bags are the most likely option.  Every major chain store now sells reusable bags for $1 or less—not much of an investment when it comes to saving the planet.  The hardest part about reusable bags is remembering to grab them.  Just think of the exercise you'll get walking back out to the car if you forget.  And after a few of those walks, remembering to carry your bags into the store becomes as much of a habit as carrying your keys.

In many cities and nations, carrying a plastic shopping bag is now as taboo as wearing a fur coat.  It has become very fashionable to carry trendy, reusable bags.  As a matter of fact, the petroleum-based culprits are no longer an option in many places.  Dozens of European and Asian countries have banned light-weight plastic bags.  And if plastic bags haven't been completely banned, then customers are being charged a “PlasTax” on each one.

What about paper bags?  That's a whole other topic, but trust the research—paper or plastic is a toss up; they are about equal in the environmental evils department.  So the next time you’re posed with the question “paper or plastic?” your answer will hopefully be “neither.”

And just imagine how impressed your cashier will be when you start spouting off bag facts and figures like a pro!

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