Each year, Americans use more than 100 billion plastic shopping bags, consuming an estimated 12 million barrels of oil. After a very short working life, these bags retire to landfills where they take 500 or more years to break down, or become litter that clogs storm drains and threatens marine wildlife. City governments that have passed or are considering plastic bag bans include Steamboat Springs, Colorado, Portland, Oregon, California cities San Francisco, Oakland and Santa Monica, Boston, and both Annapolis and Baltimore in Maryland. Consumers in these cities must use paper or bring their own bags.
Sam Shropshire, a Democratic city council member in Annapolis, says that many city residents moved to the city to be close to Chesapeake Bay, which is being damaged by the 95 percent of plastic checkout bags that end up in landfills or the environment. "We intend to put a stop to it right here in Annapolis," he says. Large chains will have six months to stop using plastic; smaller companies nine months. Merchants can substitute 100 percent recycled paper bags for the banned plastic.
According to Reusablebags.com, four of five shopping bags are made from plastic, and the average American family accumulates 60 of these "free" bags in only four trips to the grocery store. More than 90 percent of plastic bags are simply thrown away. Arthur Liu, account executive at EPI Environmental Products, says the plastic bags in landfills take up space and don't allow food and other garbage inside them to break down with the help of oxygen.
"Plastic is still pretty new, and a lot of [plastic bags] manufactured half a century ago are still around," he says. Neil Seidman of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance says "Accumulating plastic is destroying our rivers and oceans."
In the debate between paper and plastic, however, the real answer may be neither. Reusablebags.com President Vince Cobb says that paper bags are also resource- and energy-intensive. According to his site, paper bag production generates 70 percent more air pollution than plastic, and while paper bags are recycled at a higher rate than plastic, 91 percent less energy is needed to recycle a pound of plastic than a pound of paper.
"I wanted to know, paper or plastic?" Cobb says. "But that question doesn't hit the heart of the matter. If you want to make a difference, consume less."
Amar Mohanty, associate professor at the School of Packaging at Michigan State University...