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Paper Or Plastic: Is There An Answer?

May 01, 2015 12:02PM ● Published by Lewi Lewis

Never heard of Sten Gustaf Thulin? Large-scale generalizations are a slippery slope, but when they fit, well … they fit: you’ve used his invention hundreds, if not thousands of times. Everyone has.

Thulin was a Swedish engineer whose invention has changed the world and continues to do so in a very real way. Whether that change is for the better or worse depends upon with whom you speak.

In the early 1960s, Thulin developed a process that allowed the creation of a simple, high load-carrying bag; the Swedish company Celloplast had it patented in 1965.

His invention? We know it today as the single use plastic shopping bag. 

The plastic shopping bag, brought to the U.S. in the late 1970s by ExxonMobil, didn’t really take hold of the masses until 1982 when the country’s two largest supermarket chains, Safeway and Kroger, switched from the paper bag to the plastic one, and the question ‘paper or plastic’ has been part of our daily vernacular and a constant source of contention ever since.  

Amidst all the back and forth, it is impossible to know on which side of the fence Thulin, if he were alive today, would land. Or perhaps, like many others, he would simply teeter in the middle like an unsteady egg.

So what about it, paper or plastic?

The invention and life of the plastic bag hasn’t generated so much contention and controversy over nothing. 

There are many on both sides of the line. Those that are fully educated and apprised of the actual situation, and those that take a stance simply because the answer is “obvious.”

It may not be that straightforward. Nor is it, it seems, just a case of environmentalists versus “Big Plastic.”

The fact that plastic bags are pretty much everywhere is indisputable. 

Groups have been formed. Alliances have been made, creating deep divisions; proposals for the ban of single use plastic bags have been weaving through our states, in some cases winningly, in others, not so much.

And certainly separating the muck from the crystal is where it gets sticky.

Studies have shown that plastic bags will stick around for 500 – 1000 years, but because the plastic bag has only been around for about 50 years, this number seems to be used arbitrarily, but not inappropriately.

Plastic bags do not biodegrade, they can’t. Plastic is made of Polyethylene, a fully man made, inorganic compound, and the microorganisms responsible for biodegration do not recognize this substance as food. 

Plastics do, however, break down by photodegradtion (a process by which chemical bonds are broken by ultraviolet radiation from the sun).

The arbitrary 500 – 1000 years is really only to convey “a really long time.” [source: lapidos.com]

But even this is argued.
The invention and life of the plastic bag hasn’t generated so much contention and controversy over nothing.

 Josh Scheuerman, creator of Four Corners (a kickstarter campaign to tour Utah, picking up trash and meeting with representatives about recycling programs), tells me that the amount of plastic bags that get used in America alone brushes 1 billion annually. “And around 5 percent of those are recycled. Plastic never deteriorates … it [plastic] may breakdown into small pieces, but it will never fully breakdown. It’s always going to exist once it’s created,” he said.

Anthony Van Leeuwen, who is involved with the group, Fight The Plastic Bag Ban, argues this by citing a survey about the 2012 bag ban in San Jose, California. 

“They did a litter survey both before (two years) and after (one year) the bag ban. A total of 2,913 plastic bags were collected over three years, or about 1,000 per year. The city estimated that more than 500 million plastic grocery bags were used annually,” he said. “Therefore, 1,000 plastic grocery bags collected annually represent 0.02 percent of the bags used in the city.”

He tells me that what “they” won’t tell you is that only about 50 percent of all plastic bags littered were plastic grocery bags, inferring that the problem is much more involved than what people are told. 

The pressure to “green” nowadays is rampantly ubiquitous, so the answer should be simple: use the most recyclable material. Biodegradable paper it is then, right?

Don’t be so sure. 

The making of paper products creates 70 percent more air pollution than that of the production of plastic. [source: energysavings.com]

And then, or course, there is the “obvious”: paper is made of trees.

According to ecology.com, 4 billion trees are cut down each year for paper products alone. That’s roughly 35 percent of all trees harvested that could otherwise be absorbing carbon dioxide. 

Even Scheuerman admits that the production of paper isn’t the ideal answer.

“The bleaching process of paper is horrible and toxic … but paper naturally breaks down,” he said. 

And then there is the cost.

“This is the typical ‘no cost too high for any benefit too small’ approach.” Don Williams, founder of Stop the Bag Ban citizen’s group, said. “Big grocers support bag bans because they make millions off charging for a product they previously provided for free.”

Scheuerman disagrees.

“What consumers don’t realize is they are already paying for every plastic bag. They are built into the cost of groceries. So they are purchasing convenience of their neglect.”

Leeuwen breaks it down into more detail the way he sees it:

“Plastic bags indirectly cost a typical family of four about $10 to $20 annually. That same family would spend about $78 per year using paper bags at 10 cents each.”

By all accounts seen, paper uses more fuel and resources across the board, if only in production alone. It also seems that recycling isn’t all that efficient, and is grossly underused anyway [see popularmechanics.com for more information].

So now what?

 The reusable shopping bag is now all the rage and most point to this as the answer, but is it?

The concerns of the reusable shopping bag stretch from sanitary regard to, again, a cost/benefit ratio and more.

Leeuwen: “If a family were to purchase reusable bags, the cost would go up to about $300 per year,” he said. Leeuwen explains that the figure also includes utility costs, unnecessary water and energy usage in washing the bags.

Concerning contamination worries, Nancy (who asked to be identified by first name only), a Holladay resident,  simply had this to say about the subject:

“I wash bags regularly,”  she said, smiling. 

 Cleaninginstitute.org recommends washing your reusable grocery bags after each use. 

The water, energy, soap and bleach use in maintaining the cleanliness of your bags is certainly something to consider.



“We (a group of private citizens) oppose bag bans because they are only a way to control behavior of the people against their will based on distortions, falsehoods and irrelevant claims and pushed through government while avoiding a vote of the people at all cost … Simply put, bag bans are governing against the will of the people.” Williams said. 

Matt Toone, another Holladay resident who wanted to weigh in, admitted that there is a lot he doesn’t know about the opposing view, but the best he can do is make a personal decision based on what feels right for him.

“I’ve heard many cons against paper bags and reusable bags. Just the fact that those little plastic bags are everywhere and that they stick around for so long, I lean toward paper.”

Nancy echoes this sentiment, as it saddens her to see all the plastic bags on the side of the road in our canyons. 

The fact that plastic bags are choking our coastal lines with numbers as high as 8 million metric tons of plastic waste per year, is also indisputable.

But it’s the same scenario with paper, reusable bags, fast food, garbage et cetera. The plastic bag is only one element in a host of problems. 

It seems that it is less important the type of bag you decide to use, and more important of what you decide to do with that bag at the end of its life. 

Personal responsibility is a common theme, securely staked on each side of the argument. 

No one in this debate has ill intentions, quite the contrary. 

Scheuerman outlines it best with his passion, “The beauty of hindsight is knowing where we have been and deciding to move forward in a less destructive future. The beauty that is around us everyday is worth fighting for regardless of how great the obstacles look. We have a beautiful and amazing home, but we need to start caring about it a little more.”

For more information on both sides of the issue go www.stopthebagban.com and/or www.facebook.com/FourCornersUtah.     
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