“Paper or plastic?” It is a question we respond to with little thought or hesitation. The use of plastic bags for grocery shopping is by no means new. And while an increase in environmental awareness and eco-friendly practices have many stores offering reusable totes, the plastic bag remains most commonly supplied by retailers. In fact, it is estimated that between 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags are consumed annually across the globe and approximately 380 billion of those are from the United States. Equally upsetting, the United States recycling rates for these bags is estimated at about 10 percent.
This ultimately means that billions of these plastic bags end up as litter on the side of the road, debris in the ocean or landfill content. Since plastics are by no means biodegradable, these bags remain in the environment for many years. Furthermore, many contain a hefty amount of toxins, which are also harmful for the environment. For example, the 100 million plastic bags are discarded by Americans picking up their pharmacy prescriptions each year. One study has estimated that the effects of the toxins contained in these bags on the environment equates to nearly 12 million barrels of oil being dumped into the ocean. (estimates generated by http://planetgreen.discovery.com/work-connect/how-many-cities-have-a-ban-on-plastic-bags.html.)
Unsurprisingly, many environmental activists oppose the use and expansive availability of plastic bags. Reusable bag makers criticize plastic bag manufacturers and the harmful effects their products have on the environment. In fact, one notable feud between plastic bag manufacturer, Hilex Poly and reusable bag manufacturer, ChicoBag, ended in a lawsuit. And while the case was eventually resolved, it highlights the stigma surrounding the plastic bag industry and the negative press that it continues to receive. (For the full story read at http://www.nytimes.com/gwire/2011/09/19/19greenwire-pr-battle-over-plastic-bags-ends-in-court-sett-61498.html?pagewanted=1.)
In addition to environmental organizations criticising these companies, many government agencies seek to ban them also. Cities like San Francisco have required consumers use reusable tote bags for their purchases. Those who do not have the tote bags will pay between 4 to 6 cents for each plastic bag, a clear financial disincentive for using them. When such bills have been written to create a state mandate program similar to this, they have failed. (To read about the failed Californian bill, visit http://abcnews.go.com/US/california-votes-plastic-bag-ban/story?id=11526792) Opponents claim the costs of the bags to working families would be too much of a burden. Conversely, advocates claim that the big manufacturers are pushing out a policy that would have enormous benefit for the environment and people.
So what’s your stand in the plastic bag debate? Should consumers be given a choice in whether they use paper or plastic or something reusable? Or is this issue larger than the pennies and dimes? Is this about the future?