Plastic or paper? The jury’s still out

The Eureka Reporter, June 5, 2008

It began as a breeze, but soon took on the power of a gale. We’re referring to the campaign intended to replace plastic bags used by many stores with paper ones. The argument was and is that plastic bags will take hundreds of years to degrade, whereas paper can return to Mother Nature in no time.

Always ready to latch on to a trendy idea, San Francisco last year banned non-biodegradable plastic bags at large stores. In Sacramento, Assemblyman Lloyd E. Levine (D-Sherman Oaks) is promoting a bill, AB 2058, which, if passed, would cost consumers 25 cents per bag for every plastic bag they get to tote their purchases home.

Environmental researcher Amy Kaleita of the Pacific Research Institute has looked behind the clamor for paper instead of plastic to ascertain some telling facts. For example:

A single paper bag, made from wood products, requires 1,680 kilojoules of energy to be made. One plastic bag requires only 735 kilojoules.

The life cycle of one paper bag produces 2.6 kilograms of atmospheric pollutants; a plastic bag produces only .55 kg. The paper bag gives off 1.5 grams of waterborne pollutants; the plastic bag .1 g.

The ratios are top-heavy: paper produces four and 15 times, respectively, more than plastic.

Landfills are designed to prevent the breakdown of components, whether plastic or paper. If Eureka adopts mandatory garbage pickup and recycling soon, you won’t have to worry about landfills. All plastic will go into one bin for curbside pickup and recycling.

Meanwhile, we hope both Assemblyman Levine and the City of San Francisco will avail themselves of some research on plastic and paper bags. Just like a court jury, they need all the facts.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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