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Updated: May 8, 2018

Plastic vs. Paper- which is better?

The short answer: NONE.

The long answer:

After looking at all the piled up grocery bags in my house, and panicking about whether to opt for 'paper or plastic?' at checkout lines, I started thinking more and more about where these bags in my house land up after I recycle them. Were paper bags better because they were made of a natural resource? But what about the trees? Maybe plastic was better because they could be recycled? I was confused, did some research, and realized that both paper and plastic were not a viable option. I resolved to minimize the use of single-use plastic and paper, unless absolutely necessary.

Resolving is one thing, following up on it is another matter! Initially I used to forget to put the reusable bags in my car, and use that as an excuse to buy my grocery in the store's plastic or paper bags. Which wasn’t really helping my resolution. So then I came up with an absolute zero-tolerance policy, which meant that I would either have to return home to get the reusable bags, or juggle everything I wanted in my arms.

After a few incidences of egg carton breakages and apples and onions rolling around in the parking lot, I became good at remembering to bring the reusable bags with me every time I went shopping. There. I felt good about myself. But the next challenge I faced was how to get my family on board with my zero bag policy. In spite of reminding my forgetful husband that he needed to put reusable bags in the car (and sometimes he would put them in the car but forget to walk inside the store with them), a few straggler plastic and paper bags still make an appearance in the house. I fought battles with my kids about why I wouldn't pack their sandwich in a ziplock bag instead of a stainless steel lunch box. I realized that they did not have the adequate knowledge behind my reluctance to waste or not use plastic. So here I am, sharing my research with my family and you all, in the hopes of getting you to join me in this commitment.

We use 380 billion bags and wraps a year, using 12 million barrels of oil.

Here are some basic stats to begin with:

  • The average American uses approximately 6 plastic bags a week.

  • Multiply that by 300 million, you get 1.8 billion bags each week.

  • According to the EPA, we use over 380 billion plastic bags and wraps yearly, requiring 12 million barrels of oil to create.

  • Pretty soon, you will not be able to enjoy clean beaches because of all the debris coming in because there is a FLOATING PATCH OF GARBAGE in the Pacific ocean that is bigger than the size of Texas, and is growing at a rapid pace every year.

  • China, Ireland, Israel, and Germany banned plastic bags years ago. Unfortunately the US is lagging far behind. California, one of the most progressive states when it comes to the environment, only recycles about 5% of its plastic bags.

Now let's shatter some myths:

Myth: Paper is biodegradable so I can use paper bags with a clean conscience.

Fact: The U.S. cuts down about 14 million trees per year to manufacture paper bags. A lot more energy is used in creating paper bags over plastic bags (approx. 13%), as well as use of toxic chemicals. More fuel is needed to ship these bags. To top it off, they create twice as much atmospheric waste as plastic bags, and only 20% of them get recycled, while the rest go into a landfill.

Myth: Plastic bags are recycled.

Fact: According to the EPA, only 2% of plastic bags in the United States are recycled. The rest go into landfills. They do not biodegrade, and when they do break down, they send harmful toxins directly into the soil and the sea. A plastic bag takes anywhere from 15 to a 1,000 years to break down.

Myth: They’re just bags. It’s not like I’m harming anyone.

Fact: An estimated one million birds, 100,000 turtles, and countless other sea animals die each year from ingesting plastic. They confuse floating bags for jellyfish and plankton. Once these bags get into their digestive system, they cannot break them down, thus blocking their digestive tracks, starving them to death. Sometimes they get entangled in plastic waste and are not able to free themselves. Plastic bags also block drainages, adding to unnecessary clean up costs. Since they are (obviously) made of plastic, which is made with petroleum, gas prices go up too.

The problem is bigger than that.

Every time we use plastic straws, one-use cups, ziplock bags for lunches and snacks, disposable utensils, coffee capsules, we are adding to the problem. Globally, 4.8 to 12.7mt of plastic enter the ocean annually just from mismanaged waste at coastlines.

Yes, YOU can.

If you commit to using a reusable bag every time you go to the store (to buy groceries, clothes, shoes, cosmetics, absolutely anything!), here’s how you impact the environment:

  • The average reusable bag has a lifespan equal to that of more than 700 disposable plastic bags.

  • You, alone, will remove more than 22,000 plastic bags from the environment if you use reusable bags during your lifetime.

Other simple things that you can do, that will have a BIG impact:

  • Refuse to use anything that has a single use. Like straws. It's just not worth it. Ask your favorite restaurant to not dole out straws unless asked by the customer.

  • Make sure you responsibly use the free condiments and paper napkins at your favorite fast food restaurants. Be mindful of the waste you leave behind.

  • Avoid using disposable utensils.

  • Re-use gift wrap and gift bags. If you still subscribe to newspapers and magazines, recycle them to wrap your gifts. And sometimes the packaging is so nice, all you need is a bow!

And that garbage patch I told you about? Check out this video, or as they say, pictures are worth a thousand words.

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