Last Friday, Palo Alto officially enacted its ban on plastic bags in the city's grocery stores and beyond -- even CVS, the mecca of plastic bags, gave me a paper receptacle for my purchases the other day. Yet such stringent measures got me thinking: which is truly better for the environment, paper or plastic?
I went to reusablebags.com
for answers, a website founded by a grassroots organization of the same name that purports to educate consumers about the paper/plastic debate. What I found was a mixed bag of facts that boiled down to a slightly disheartening conclusion: paper bags are not quite the panacea for our disposable container addiction. In terms of energy used to manufacture the bags and pollutants released in the process, paper actually takes the lead over plastic, according to a 1988 report by the Federal Office of the Environment
So why switch to paper? One reason might be that people are more inclined to recycle the paper bags along with their daily newspapers, whereas plastic bags are more likely to end up as litter. Accordingly, a recent article in the Wall Street Journal
cited that plastic bags are recycled one-third as much as paper bags, for various reasons that include the flighty, weightless design that makes them likely to fly away or become tangled in machinery.
Throughout my research, the consensus was clear: reusable shopping bags are the best option. Yet even if the ban does little for the environment, it has succeeded in making people think twice about their shopping habits. We can only hope that one day, paper bags will be the next on the list.