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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