Paper or Plastic?
Which type of bag should we choose?If we’re trying to be environmentally conscious, neither. We have a ton of bags at home, stuffed in some drawer or piled up on a table, lining our waste baskets, or filling yet another bag hanging from our pantry door. And yet, whenever the bagger at the supermarket offers us one, we don’t hesitate to take it.
Though some say plastic bags are less damaging to the environment, because paper bags imply the felling of whole forests, as well larger amounts of energy to process paper products, and greater air and water pollution, the answer is not that clear. Yes, it is true that plastic bags consume 40% less energy, generate 80% less solid waste, and produce 70% fewer atmospheric emissions than paper bags, but their impact on the environment should not be overlooked.
Plastic bags are produced with petroleum, a non-renewable, highly polluting resource. Once in the environment, it takes fifteen to hundreds of years for plastic bags to decompose. As they do, microscopic toxic particles seep into soils, rivers, and oceans. According to a report by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, between 500 billion and a trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide each year. Less than 1% of these are recycled, as it’s more expensive to recycle plastic bags than it is to produce new ones. So if they’re not recycled, just where do our plastic bags go? Though some are dumped in landfills, the bulk of them actually end up in the oceans, filling the bellies of unsuspecting marine animals that mistake them for food, or entangling their bodies.
So what should we do when faced with the choice of paper or plastic? Paper is made from a renewable source, but it pollutes air and water, uses up great amounts of energy, and may lead to excessive logging. Plastic consumes less energy and generates less waste, but is not biodegradable and is more directly harmful to wildlife. Clearly, neither option is viable if we’re considering the effects on the environment. So let’s not limit ourselves to these two choices. Let’s opt for a third, more original answer- reusable shopping bags.
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