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Binary Man: Paper Or Plastic?

Binary Man has come to our planet to settle disputes, solve problems and make life a whole lot better. Each week, he will confront an issue, weigh the arguments and present a verdict. Got an issue for him? Post it below or e-mail him.

Binary Man has an especially soft spot for this topic because it is mother's milk, one of the original binary choice questions to break into the popular culture. Breathes there a soul who has not wrestled with this dilemma? Binary Man can't stand the question at the checkout counter, either, yet he has never really forced himself to come to a definitive position--until now.

Virginians will watch in the coming days as their state legislators decide whether to ban retailers from stuffing goods into those flimsy plastic bags that have become a symbol of our wasteful ways. Legislators is Richmond are now mulling two bills, one that would force supermarkets and big chain retailers to offer only reusable bags, and one that would impose a five-cent fee on both paper and plastic bags, exempting from the charge only those durable, usually harder plastic bags that are meant to be used every time you shop.

Vast forests and unfathomable amounts of electronic space, as well as way too much brainpower, have gone into efforts by scientists, advocates, policy wonks and others to figure out whether plastic bags or paper bags are more damaging to the air, water, soil, future and our souls. Binary Man has spent too many hours learning the ins and outs of factors such as eutrophication, which is the degree to which paper or plastic bags disturb the chemical and nutritional balance of the earth's soil as they each sit in landfills or other burial spots. (Paper loses that part of the battle, because the process used to manufacture the bags emits considerably more carbon than the act of making a plastic bag.)

Not-so-subtly camouflaged fronts for the plastics industry churn out study after study seeking to show that plastic bags are more frequently recycled and reused than paper bags. The plastics people contend this means that plastic bags are actually better for the environment than the paper competitor, even if the plastics are made from fossil fuels. And the plastics side makes some good points: Indeed, it is true that neither paper nor plastic bags decompose to any useful degree in the landfills where most of our trash ends up.

Plastic bags are much, much cheaper for retailers, which is why they push them so hard. It's also why your average retail clerk so blithely packs your groceries in 12 bags when two or three would have sufficed.

RESPONSE (Jan. 27):

Here's a note responding to today's blog item from Gregory Ten Eyck, Safeway's spokesman and lobbyist:

Hi, Binary Man:

I enjoyed your column on the issue of paper or plastic in today's Post. I think you covered the subject very well, and in a fair, even-handed manner.

Obviously, we folks at Safeway are directly in the middle of these debates. Being the customer-focused company we are, we have always placed a high priority on our shoppers' convenience and choice. Frankly, we stopped asking the question "Paper or plastic?" years ago (even though paper is available on request) because virtually everyone wants plastic. It's much, much easier to carry loads of groceries, and those plastic bags have so many uses around the home. Just ask the owner of a pet! Additionally, several years ago, we placed plastic bag recycling bins in the front of our stores. We not only accept our own used bags, but also those from any retailer. Most people tell us that it's a valuable community service. But I can't tell you the reason is all altruistic; we make money on selling the used plastic bags to Trex, a company that makes synthetic lumber. Profit is the first rule in a successful recycling effort. So plastic is completely recyclable, and we want to encourage our customers to bring their bags back to our stores. At least those that they haven't reused as trash bags.

Meanwhile, we would be most happy if customers were to bring their own reusable bags to the store, as shoppers in many other countries do. That would reduce our bag expenses and be even better for the environment.

The mistake some well-meaning people make is thinking that plastic is bad and paper is good for the environment. As you pointed out so well in your column, that is just not the case. If you ban one, you have to ban the other. Or if government wants to levy a tax on one type of bag to discourage its use, it needs to levy the same tax on the other.

You mentioned the San Francisco law, which unfairly applies only to chain stores and those grossing over $2 million a year, and prohibits the distribution of non-compostable plastic bags. Because of the cost of this type of bag, virtually all retailers have gone to paper bags. This was feel-good legislation that has done very little for the environment but has increased the cost of doing business in the city by the bay. For an excellent analysis of the effects of this law and the entire plastic vs. paper debate (including some debunking of myths), please take a few minutes to click this link and read a story in the SF Weekly: http://www.sfweekly.com/content/printVersion/1297386.

Thanks again for your rational discussion of this issue. And please let me know if I can ever serve as a resource.

Gregory A. Ten Eyck
Director of Public Affairs and Government Relations
Safeway Inc./Eastern Division

The Whole Foods grocery chain stopped giving out plastic bags last year, a move that obviously dovetails nicely with the greenish tendencies of the chain's customer base. But beyond facile good intentions, there's not a lot of science to back up the idea that plastic bags are more damaging than paper ones, especially if you look at the energy that goes into making the bags (about five times as much is needed to churn out a paper bag.)

But paper advocates have strong points as well, and they correctly point out that proportionately far more paper bags get recycled than plastic bags. The EPA says that about 25 percent of paper bags and nine percent of plastic bags end up being recycled.

Once they're pitched, however, it's pretty much an even game--both paper and plastic sit in those landfills more or less forever.

Virginia is by no means the first jurisdiction to consider venturing down this path. San Francisco (of course) banned retailers from dispensing disposable plastic bags in 2007, to the great dismay of the plastics industry. Somehow, life and commerce continue there.

But most of the studies Binary Man has perused offer little persuasive evidence that we will lead healthier or morally superior lives by choosing either paper or plastic. Rather, the clear and obvious truth is that the only way to make a big difference in what ends up in landfills and oceans is to dramatically reduce the number of bags being thrown out--no matter their composition. And the way to do that is to push consumers to do what our counterparts do in many other countries of the world--bring their own dang bag to the store.

The argument against this is that we as Americans are addicted to convenience and simply cannot be bothered to carry our own bags wherever we go. But in fact, even before local and state governments got into the act, one of Americans' favorite retailers got us into the habit of eschewing bags. Throughout the company's rise through the retailing ranks, Price Club--later Costco--has left customers to fend for themselves when it comes to getting all those warehouse groceries and dry goods to the car and thence home. And far from getting all huffy about it, most folks seem to like the idea, even turning it into something of a game.

The leap from there to carrying reusable bags to the grocery store, as people do in reasonably civilized places such as Germany and Britain, is not huge.

Of the two bills now in committee in Richmond, one would permit stores to dispense durable bags only (HB 1814 by Del. Joe Morrissey of Highland Springs), and the other would impose a nickel fee on all paper and plastic bags except for the reusable ones (HB 2010 by Del. Adam Ebbin of Arlington). The latter approach is the one Binary Man sees emerging from both the science and politics of bags. Even in ultra-green Germany, you can still buy a disposable plastic bag at the checkout counter, but it will cost you (perhaps the equivalent of 50 cents--enough to make you think twice about it), and you'll be stared at in a most discomfiting way. Outright bans only alienate consumers and create unforeseen backlash--in some places where the distribution of plastic grocery bags has been banned, there's been a marked uptick in purchases of plastic garbage bags. What good has been accomplished there?

In the end, the only approach that will make a difference is one that takes advantage of people's natural desire to do the right thing, and that puts the great forces of guilt and shame into play. Binary Man will declare progress to have been made when there's a shift in social mores to the extent that the clerk gives you the evil eye if you insist on buying bags rather than using your own. In the end, whether they are paper or plastic doesn't matter much.

By Marc Fisher |  January 23, 2009; 8:00 AM ET
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Comments

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I mostly use reusable bags when I shop, but now I've come across a side-effect. I now hoard the few plastic and paper grocery bags I still occasionally get so I can use them as liners in my kitchen trash can (plastic) and to hold my newspapers for recycling (paper). If disposable bags are rarer, I guess I'll have to purchase plastic trash bags (seems wasteful to purchase something just to throw it away). What about my newspapers? The curbside recycling pickup doesn't want loose paper. Does anyone have any advice?

Posted by: reader16 | January 23, 2009 8:24 AM

I only take enough plastic bags home to reuse for kitty litter. For everything else I keep a reusable bag in the car.

Of course, despite Marc Fisher's snark, this is not the *only* way to keep stuff out of landfills, but it's a good start. What a sarcastic @ss he's become.

Posted by: deaniac | January 23, 2009 8:46 AM

I also use my plastic bags as trash can liners. I would rather see the clerk put a five pound bag of flour in one bag and a dozen eggs in another than to put the flour on top the eggs in one bag, which they seem to like to do.

Posted by: justhere | January 23, 2009 9:04 AM

In the future families will survive because they own tiny robots that go through landfills and extract what ever is needed and they can detect and retrieve. The plastic bags will just keep it fresh for harvest. But right now, Giant has the best idea. They give out the reusable bags and give a nickle for every bag we use that is reusable.

I like that.

Posted by: gary4books | January 23, 2009 9:05 AM

Sorry I prefer plastic since they make great poop bags. Now if they make them biodegradeable that is fine. Govt needs to stay out of petty matters like this and worry about balancing the budget and the Nazi greens need to go home and shave their arm pits!

Posted by: sheepherder | January 23, 2009 9:09 AM

Ten years ago, when I first started bringing my own reusable bags, I could never get through the checkout line without at least one plastic bag. I would routinely stop at the bag recycling canister, take the groceries out of the plastic bag and into my reusables. I asked a store manager once (who saw me in action) if there was a law against leaving the store without a plastic bag (he said no, but I don't recall anything changing). I've also encountered cashiers who, upon being reminded that the bag of reusable bags I put at the front of my groceries is for them to use, would then put the throwaway plastic bag of food directly into the reusable bag. At least with the proliferation of self-check out lanes I can bag items myself and make sure that I only use the reusable bags. This works better at some stores (Shoppers, Giant) than at others (Safeway, Walmart), due to the design of the self-checkout system.

And Mark, don't you remember that (30 years ago?) when Shopper's Food Warehouse first opened stores in this area, they didn't provide bags? They sometimes had cardboard cartons (from food deliveries) available, and would sell bags if you needed one, but the idea was that you would bring your old bags back or find other ways to get your groceries home. I can't remember how long they did that before they started providing bags.

Reader16, my dad ties his newspapers up in twine for the boy scouts to come pick up. Perhaps you can call the recycling service to see if this is an option for you. I don't have curbside recycling, so I often take the newspapers in a paper bag and dump it out at the recycle place, and take the paper bag back home to reuse.

Posted by: janedoe5 | January 23, 2009 9:20 AM

Please, no degradable bags! You won't want to reuse a bag that's going to disintegrate.

Doesn't anyone remember that grocery stores experimented with biodegradable bags around 1989? I remember storing things in bags only to discover a few months later that the bag had broken down into pieces. And who is helped when a bag buried in a landfill breaks down?

On the other hand incentives, such as a nickel back if you bring your own bag, or an attractive design on a reusable bag, are a fine idea. Just make sure the reusable bags can be recycled when they're worn out.

Posted by: pkalina | January 23, 2009 9:27 AM

I believe Binary Man is not Marc Fisher.

Anyway, I use the plastic bags for trash can liners, so I am in essence recycling them. I do like Giant's policy of 5 cents per reusable bag; and we try to remember to bring them every time, even if we don't get the discount. There's just something about a discount that makes me feel much better than a fee, like Ikea charges.

Posted by: Joran | January 23, 2009 10:32 AM

I love the plastic bags - we use them for our trash. It's a balance in our household to use the reusuable bags just enough so that we keep a good number of plastic bags on hand. If I would ban one, it would be the paper bags which break on the way home and have no secondary use - they go right to the recycling.

An issue that is important in other countries is litter: a lot of plastic bags are discarded and end up stuck in trees and bushes. I don't know if this is as much of a factor here.

Posted by: joemcg | January 23, 2009 10:33 AM

I don't know about other jurisdictions, but Arlington specifically allows mixed paper (newspaper and other types) to be tied with twine for curbside recycling. http://www.arlingtonva.us/Departments/EnvironmentalServices/swd/EnvironmentalServicesSwdCurb.aspx

Posted by: ArtCee | January 23, 2009 10:58 AM

I always take cloth bags to supermarkets, drug stores, craft stores but not to department stores. I can just put newspapers in my covered recycle bin but I think Montgomery county still wants us to put other paper(mail, small paper) in paper bags. I have occasionally taken my small paper and put it into a "bag" I make by stapling newspaper around the smaller papers. Otherwise, we have to try to get paper bags at Trader joes or Whole Foods or occasionally I will take a few paper bags at the supermarket(but not for my groceries)

Posted by: silverspring25 | January 23, 2009 11:04 AM

One of the scariest things about the extensive use of plastics in everything we consume is that lots of the bags, bottlecaps, and other bits and pieces that escape the landfill end up here, in the ever growing Great Pacific Garbage patch, where it breaks down and enters the food chain at even the cellular level: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Pacific_Garbage_Patch

Posted by: dr_klahn | January 23, 2009 11:23 AM

I was slow to catch on, but the cloth grocery bags Giant sells for 99 cents each pay for themselves in no time. The store credits you 5 cents for every cloth bag you use. So, now I'm making a quarter everytime I go grocery shopping.

I never knew how much plastic I was using in grocery bags until they started recycling them in the store...I quickly collected a bundle to recycle and then I understood that it adds up quick. If you buy 15 bags of groceries a week...60 plastic bags or more a month get used.

Hell, when supermarkets started crediting your total 5 cents per reusable bag, I had to roll with it.

Posted by: free-donny | January 23, 2009 11:44 AM

I started using the reusable bags from Fresh Fields (or Whole Foods or whatever this week's name is) a year or two ago because they're more durable and they hold more stuff than the plastic bags. It took me a little while to remember to put them back in the trunk of the car promptly (now after I unpack them I put them at the top of the stairs so I see them next time I go down to the garage), and if I drive my other car sometimes I forget to take them with me, but on the whole I like them a lot better than the plastic bags. There's no need for double-bagging, and I can usually fit my groceries into two or three reusable bags instead of 10 plastic ones. I still sometimes request paper bags for the newspaper recycling, but my neighborhood is supposed to be getting new recycle bins with LIDS sometime soon, which will eliminate the need for paper bags.

Like "janedoe5," I've noticed that some cashiers at some stores seem to resent the reusable bags: At Harris Teeter, the guy bagged everything in plastic and then put those into the reusable bags, and at Giant when they had a separate cashier and bagger they rushed to start before I had a chance to give them my reusable bags.

As a result, I try to use the self-checkout. The one at Harris Teeter (which is my normal store) is a bit of a pain because it's the "scale" design: You scan your item and if you don't place it in the bag quickly enough, the machine gets mad. But the scale is so sensitive that it causes problems if you put your reusable bags in place before scanning: It says "Unexpected item in bagging area" and makes you start over. The trick is to have your bag ready, then scan the first item (a six-pack of beer or a carton of milk works well), then place it in the bag and place the bag onto the bagging area in one fell swoop.

(More in a minute....the Post limits comment length.)

Posted by: 1995hoo | January 23, 2009 12:03 PM

(Continuing from before)

Giant's self-checkout is a better design, but I refuse to shop at the Giant near my house in Kingstowne because they do not have cart return corrals, and thus the car park is littered with carts that can be blown into cars. If they aren't willing to provide something as simple as a cart corral, I'm not willing to give them my business. But anyway, while Giant's design is better because you just scan your stuff, then bag it at the end of the belt, often having your own bags doesn't work because the store employee who monitors the self-checkout will sometimes bag your stuff as a favor to you while you scan. I appreciate the gesture, but it defeats the purpose of the reusable bags.

I definitely remember the days when Shoppers Food Warehouse didn't provide free bags. I was in my teens when they opened in Fair City Mall, near where my parents lived (and still live), and I remember it cost 3¢ per bag if you wanted a bag, or you could bring your own or use boxes. You had to pack your own groceries either way. There was an area down past the checkouts where they dumped empty cardboard boxes for customers to take. My mother had two boxes and brought them with her every week; if I were at the store with her, I packed the groceries and I found that I got quite good at figuring out the best way to arrange it all in the boxes (probably one reason why I like using reusable bags and the self-checkout now, as I think about the order for scanning the groceries and how best to pack them). Like the reusable bags, the boxes were more durable and held more, and I don't ever remember ANYONE who shopped there having any problem with the store's bag policy.

I've found that the current Fresh Fields bags made from recycled plastic bottles are the best ones because they're more durable. The fabric bags sold at Harris Teeter and Giant can get torn by box edges too easily. Also, Wegmans will give you a free reusable fabric wine-carrying bag if you buy several bottles of wine there--nice touch.

Posted by: 1995hoo | January 23, 2009 12:04 PM

I think a 5c or 10c charge per bag is acceptable.... As people get annoyed with it, they will simply begin re-using the heavy duty ones as they should....

Posted by: indep2 | January 23, 2009 12:06 PM

"I think a 5¢ or 10¢ charge per bag is acceptable.... As people get annoyed with it, they will simply begin re-using the heavy duty ones as they should...."

I daresay this might be more effective than giving people a 5¢-per-bag discount the way some stores do now. People tend to notice more when they're charged FOR something than when they receive a minimal discount.

I know it's a bit off-topic, but in connection with the point I made about people leaving shopping carts all over the place, I'd like to see stores charge a 50¢ deposit for a shopping cart. You shop, take it to your car, unload it, then take it back to a cart station (which could be located in the car park if need be) and get your 50¢ back when you return it. The idea is similar to airport baggage carts. It might reduce the incidence of lazy schmucks who leave carts wherever they want.

Posted by: 1995hoo | January 23, 2009 12:20 PM

I've been using the reusable bags at Giant for close to 5 years now. It wasn't hard to get into the habit and it's much easier to carry 2 bags than 12 plastic bags. I have 8 total and mostly keep them in the trunk of my car. And Giant gives me a nickel credit every time I use them so the 99 cent cost has long since been recouped.

I think most shoppers would adapt quickly. I'm unclear on why paper bags don't biodegrade in landfills, though. Anyone have an idea? As easily as they rip if they get damp, I can't imagine how they'd last as long as plastic in a landfill.

deaniac, the only drawback was for litter scooping. I solved that by putting a small trash can with a lid next to the litter box.

Posted by: ArlingtonGay | January 23, 2009 12:43 PM

1995hoo:

I think you get why I support charging per bag...

If I were offered a 5c or 10c DISCOUNT or cash-back incentive, its not even worth it to me since I dont even clip coupons (What can I say, Im a guy).

However, a 5-10c CHARGE per bad would quickly make me sit up and notice... Much like a new tax you find on your phone bill that makes you wonder how it jumped another $10

Posted by: indep2 | January 23, 2009 12:54 PM

"If I were offered a 5c or 10c DISCOUNT or cash-back incentive, its not even worth it to me since I dont even clip coupons (What can I say, Im a guy)."

I don't clip coupons very often either. The time that's involved in looking at them all, clipping them, then remembering to take them to the store just isn't worth it, and 99% of the time the coupons are for things I would not normally buy anyway (which means that I wind up spending MORE if I use the coupon than I do if I ignore it).

I think what it comes down to is that people expect to spend a certain amount at the store, and any discount from that becomes, "Hey, that's nice," but is hardly compelling. Any additional charge rankles people, even if it's minimal. I suppose even if a charge didn't push people to the reusable bags, it might cause people to pressure the cashiers to be less wasteful in how they bag things. I always hate it if a cashier puts just one item (usually eggs) in a plastic bag. The average cashier has no incentive to minimize the number of bags used, so they don't bother.

Posted by: 1995hoo | January 23, 2009 1:02 PM

I'm unclear on why paper bags don't biodegrade in landfills, though. Anyone have an idea? As easily as they rip if they get damp, I can't imagine how they'd last as long as plastic in a landfill.
---

Air.
Once they're *in* the landfill, underneath tons of "garbage," there's no air to allow them to biodegrade. Unless the landfill turns their piles (unlikely, I think), nothing at the bottom biodegrades. If you research it, you'll find info about decades old newspapers that are still readable when they're unearthed.

Posted by: robjdisc | January 23, 2009 2:02 PM

For facts and links to the studies about plastic bags and the environment that started it all, as well as environmental shopping strategies and a survey of plastic bag knowledge...please visit www.thetruthaboutplasticbags.com

Posted by: clearperspective | January 23, 2009 2:46 PM

Another benefit to these bans and fees is that it gets people thinking about all the other things they use for a few seconds and then throw away. It helps move us away from the disposable society.

I've been heartened to see that a good number of shoppers at my Harris Teeter use reusable bags. On the other hand, Target cashiers have twice moved to put my newly purchased reusable bags into plastic bags.

Plastic never goes away. Nearly every molecule of plastic created since the 1950s is still on the planet. The useful life of a plastic bag is mere seconds, maybe a few minutes. But it's here forever.

Plastic also cannot be recycled indefinitely--the chemical structure changes and the new material is a weaker grade. In addition, the demand for recycling supply is dropping in line with the recession.

Another useful site with plastics info: http://riseaboveplastics.blogspot.com/

Posted by: rallycap | January 23, 2009 5:00 PM

I agree with rallycap! Once they're here, they're never going away.
--------------

I mostly use reusable bags when I shop, but now I've come across a side-effect. I now hoard the few plastic and paper grocery bags I still occasionally get so I can use them as liners in my kitchen trash can (plastic) and to hold my newspapers for recycling (paper). If disposable bags are rarer, I guess I'll have to purchase plastic trash bags (seems wasteful to purchase something just to throw it away). What about my newspapers? The curbside recycling pickup doesn't want loose paper. Does anyone have any advice?

Posted by: reader16 | January 23, 2009 8:24 AM

+++++++++++

Yes, buy biodegradable plastic. You can at Whole Foods and certain healthfood stores.

Or use paper bags

_________________

I only take enough plastic bags home to reuse for kitty litter. For everything else I keep a reusable bag in the car.

Of course, despite Marc Fisher's snark, this is not the *only* way to keep stuff out of landfills, but it's a good start. What a sarcastic @ss he's become.

Posted by: deaniac | January 23, 2009 8:46 AM
++++++++++++

YOu can use biodegrable plastic bags (above).

--------------

"Sorry I prefer plastic since they make great poop bags. Now if they make them biodegradeable that is fine."

They do.

Posted by: greenshuttle | January 23, 2009 9:44 PM

Retailers should charge us for bags. People will use fewer bags if it costs them money.

I try to keep at least one reusable bag in my car, so I have it when I go to the store.

We don't have to rely on guilt and shame to reduce our use of paper and plastic bags, however. We can also look at it as using our resources (trees, oil) more efficiently, and preserving our forests -- especially in the Southeast U.S. -- and reducing our reliance on foreign oil.

- Find green links and resources for the DC area at my Web site, http://www.greenlistdc.org/

Posted by: dankulpinski | January 24, 2009 9:40 AM

One problem with the plastic bags is that even once they get in the landfills, they often get blown out. Most dumps have people assigned to just run around grabbing bags and tying them in knots so they don't blow away. Bag wranglers they call them.

Posted by: cranor | January 24, 2009 7:55 PM

You can buy biodegradable "BioBags" for kitty litter at drugstore.com (but not at Whole Foods or other health food stores as far as I know). They are $6 for 50 bags, so unfortunately the charge for a throwaway plastic bag would have to go up to 12 cents for shoppers to break even financially.


Posted by: wrybread | January 25, 2009 2:04 PM

These are probably not the same thing, but eco-friendly biodegradable kitchen bags by Natural Value are sold in Whole Foods and some health food stores. I buy them there all the time. These are not $6. I can't remember how much they are. The box says they degrade in 18-24 months.

I am not sure if they qualify for use in a litter box or not. But, why use plastic bags in a litter box anyway? And when you're done with the litter, why not put it in a paper bag for disposal?

Anyway, probably not much is biodegrading in a landfill packed tight, anyway. But I don't really know, never having been to a landfill or spoken to anyone who has. It'd be interesting to read an article about it.

Posted by: sugarstreet | January 25, 2009 8:47 PM

I only recently started using re-usable bags. As a man of decent fashion many of the re-usable bags I see being sold in stores don't match my modern-green style.

But, I will tell you that now I'm in the habit of using my own bags, I do so all the time. I don't usually pass on links in comments, but howgreenisyourbag.com has some VERY nice reusable bags (with flat bottoms, which makes groceries much easier than plastic bags with crimped bottoms).

I believe most of them are made from Jute which is also pretty darn enviro-friendly.

I wish binary man could have just told us whether paper or plastic was better though!

Posted by: jdcoffman | January 25, 2009 10:41 PM

Arlington and Alexandria mostly burn their trash--they don't use landfills. For info on why this is a GOOD thing, see http://www.eia.doe.gov/kids/energyfacts/saving/recycling/solidwaste/wastetoenergy.html.
It's best never to waste things in the first place, which is why the mantra is REDUCE, reuse, recycle-in that order. Canvas bags replace both plastic and paper, carry the most, and are the most comfortable, anyway-use those.

Posted by: LHodskins | January 25, 2009 11:23 PM

This analysis was very two dimensional and beyond disappointing. Though, we should not be surprised from such an eponymous column. The crux of Mr. Fisher's argument for reusable bags is that both paper and plastic bags cause the same harm post-use. This simply is not true.

Indeed, he is correct to state that most of these bags will end up in landfills along with the post consumer waste for the products they once carried. However, the simply fact is that paper biodegrades far easier than most plastic bags. A large majority of plastic bags issued at stores are petrol-made, and would take exponentially longer to degrade while disrupting the breakdown of other materials in the fill.

Moreover, plastic recycling in all forms is the most carbon and energy intensive of all recyclable materials. Indeed many forms of plastic, though marked recyclable, are often not recycled by local plants because it's too inefficient.

Ideally, Westerners would use less packaging and reuse more in all walks of life. However, this is not always an option, let alone in a binary dilemma.

Posted by: Wills85 | January 25, 2009 11:47 PM

Even if you charge 20c per bag.... anyone with half a brain would buy the fabric bags for cost savings over time...

its all about breaking habits....

Personally, it will take something like this for me to care enough to change...

Posted by: indep2 | January 26, 2009 9:38 AM

Plastic bags are just lousy for carrying stuff. They're the wrong shape so your stuff falls out, and they tear if you look at them wrong. The reusable bags are so superior for the job -- carrying things -- that there really isn't a valid comparison. Paper is in the middle, although there are different levels of qualities (Freshfields has nice paper bags.)

Then there's the litter aspect. Not every bag makes it to the landfill. Plastic bags are more likely to escape because they're so easily blown by the wind, and they last much longer in the wild.

Posted by: washpost4 | January 27, 2009 10:00 AM

Sugarstreet: "I am not sure if they qualify for use in a litter box or not. But, why use plastic bags in a litter box anyway? And when you're done with the litter, why not put it in a paper bag for disposal?"

Some people use plastic bags to line the litter box in the hope that they won't have to wash the box as often. Doesn't work with my cats; they shred the liner. I use plastic bags to hold the debris when I go around scooping the litter boxes. Newspaper bags work in theory, but most of the time, my newspaper bags have little holes that trail used litter.

The problem with using paper is that wet clumps can soak into the paper, and the paper doesn't do a good job of keeping the odors contained until it goes into the trash truck. Cat pee seriously stinks, even in an outdoor trash can.

Posted by: magicdomino | January 27, 2009 10:47 AM

Marc, I use the grocery store plastic bags in my trash can, for my trash. I have to double them up because they're pretty 'thin.' My trash comes twice a week so using these bags works out perfectly for me. I only put non-recycable stuff in regular trash so I don't need BIG trash bags (that cost money). You can always recycle any extra plastic grocery or shopping bags you have in the bins provided at every grocery store. If and when the grocery stores stop using plastic bags, it will simply increase sales of plastic bags in the grocery store - guess that's a good thing for the makers of plastic trash bags. I personally like to use the free ones I get my groceries in. Just remember we all need plastic bags for our trash...there's no way around it. I will truly miss the grocery store plastic bags should they be taken away.

Posted by: BarbaraBear42 | January 27, 2009 1:27 PM

"Just remember we all need plastic bags for our trash...there's no way around it."

I am just not convinced this is true.

Furthermore, we do have biodegradable plastic bags now. Keep plastic bags, yes. But keep them forever. Never throw them away.

Posted by: sugarstreet | January 27, 2009 7:45 PM

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