Paper or plastic? To save planet, it's a no-brainer
by Ted Rueter

In "The Graduate," Dustin Hoffman was offered one word of advice about his future: plastics.

Well, maybe no more. There is a growing national and international movement to ban plastic bags, a symbol of waste and environmental destruction. We are choking the planet with these non-biodegradable bags.

Worldwatch Institute estimated that in 2002, factories cranked out 4 trillion to 5 trillion plastic bags that were used in supermarkets, department stores, convenience stores and drugstores. Each year, it's estimated that Americans discard nearly 100 billion plastic bags; only 0.6 percent of them are recycled.

Defenders of the plastics industry argue that paper bags require more energy and water and generate higher levels of air pollution and solid waste. Apologists also assert that plastic bags are four times cheaper than paper bags and are lightweight and water resistant.

However, the virtues of plastic are overriden by its vices. Most significantly, plastic bags are gas guzzlers. According to Worldwatch Institute, 430,000 gallons of oil are required to produce 100 million plastic bags. In addition, the vast majority of bags are not biodegradable, create litter and choke marine life.

Recently, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors banned plastic bags made from petroleum products from large supermarkets and drugstores. The new rules do allow recyclable plastic bags.

Ross Mirkarimi, the San Francisco supervisor who championed the ordinance, said 450,000 gallons of oil will be saved annually and 1,400 tons of debris will escape landfills.

Other jurisdictions may follow San Francisco's lead. Phoenix and Los Angeles are studying a plastic bag ban. New York Assemblyman William Colton, chairman of the Assembly's Solid Waste Committee, has proposed a statewide ban that would prohibit large retail stores from using plastic grocery bags. Earth Resources Foundation in Costa Mesa, Calif., has called for a 25 cent tax on plastic bags in California. Last year, the California legislature considered a 3 cent tax on plastic bags.

American efforts pale in comparison to international measures. Bangladesh has banned plastic bags. Paris' ban will go into effect this year, followed by a nationwide ban in France in 2010. Since January 2002, the South African government has discouraged the disposal of plastic bags by requiring manufacturers to make them more durable and expensive, resulting in a 90 percent reduction in their use. Since March 2002, Ireland has imposed a 15 cent "plastax" on each bag. In Australia, about 90 percent of retailers are cooperating with the government's voluntary plan to limit plastic bags. A Taiwanese law requiring restaurants, convenience stores and supermarkets to charge customers for plastic bags and utensils has resulted in a 69 percent decrease in the use of plastic products. Canada, New Zealand, the Philippines and the United Kingdom all have plans to outlaw or tax plastic bags.

Another approach is to discourage excessive bag consumption entirely. Since 2005, 1 Bag at a Time, a California online company, has sold about 300,000 reusable cloth bags.

Avoiding the use of plastic bags is very difficult. My daily newspaper is usually delivered in a plastic bag. Most department stores, convenience stores and drugstores offer nothing but plastic bags. When I make a small purchase and say "I don't need a bag," I am usually greeted with disbelief. At a grocery store that customarily offers paper bags, I have to emphasize, "No plastic, please." At some establishments, for tiny purchases, many shopkeepers ask, "Would you like a little bag?" as if it were a courtesy.

A courtesy to the consumer, perhaps -- but not to the planet. Plastic bags should go the way of Styrofoam containers and smoking in public: socially unacceptable and preferably banned.

Published in the Chicago Tribune, April 26, 2007.

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