NRCM Statement at the Kickoff Press Conference for “Got Your Bags, Maine?”
by Matt Prindiville, NRCM Clean Production Project Director
“Mainers use and dispose of more than 700 million shopping bags a year. That’s more than two million bags thrown away every single day. These bags end up in landfills, on our streets as litter, in our lakes and streams and the bellies of wildlife.
“Creating disposable paper and plastic bags uses valuable natural resources – trees and natural gas– to manufacture a product that is either reused once or quickly thrown away. Plastic bags can take decades, even centuries, to break down. Even then, they still leave toxic petrochemicals in the environment.
“Fortunately, this environmental problem is easy-to-solve. We all need to add one simple thing to our morning routine. As we head out the door and pick up our wallet, keys and cell phone, we also need to grab our reusable bags and pop them in the car. Then, they’re right there for us when we need them.
“It’s good for business, our local stores, the Maine landscape and wildlife and it’s easy. It’s about being good stewards of the earth and our communities. Each one of us can make the difference. Please remember your reusable bags when you shop.”
Two bills were introduced last session to address the problem of disposable shopping bags. “This is truly an example of business, government and public interest organizations working together to solve an environmental problem,” said Prindiville.
Summary: The answer to the “paper or plastic?” is: Neither. They’re roughly equal in pros and cons. While convenient addictions, they both gobble up natural resources and cause significant pollution.
ENERGY TO PRODUCE BAG ORIGINALLY (BTUs)
Safeway Plastic Bags: 594 BTUs
Safeway Paper Bags: 2511 BTUs
(Source: 1989 Plastic Recycling Directory, Society of Plastics Industry.)
Of course, most paper comes from tree pulp, so the impact of paper bag production on forests is enormous. In 1999, 14 million trees were cut to produce the 10 billion paper grocery bags used by Americans that year alone. Paper bag production delivers a global warming double-whammy forests (major absorbers of greenhouse gases) have to be cut down, and then the subsequent manufacturing of bags produces greenhouse gases.
POLLUTANTS PAPER VS. PLASTIC
Paper sacks generate 70% more air and 50 times more water pollutants than plastic bags.
Source: “Comparison of the Effects on the Environment of Polyethylene and Paper Carrier Bags,” Federal Office of the Environment, August 1988
ENERGY TO RECYCLE PACKAGE ONCE (BTUs)
Safeway Plastic Bags: 17 BTUs
Safeway Paper Bags: 1444 BTUs
Source: 1989 Plastic Recycling Directory, Society of Plastics Industry.
Although paper bags have a higher recycling rate than plastic, each new paper grocery bag you use is made from mostly virgin pulp for better strength and elasticity.