Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Paper vs Plastic: 500 billion purchases can't be wrong... can they?

I fell through the Twitter rabbit hole today and came out in Malaysia where I read about a city that banned the use of plastic bags in stores for a day. My first reaction was happiness to find that the United States isn't the only place in the world that's taking the paper vs plastic debate to the next level. As I read on, however, I discovered a shocking statistic worth sharing:

500,000,000,000 (yes 500 billion) plastic bags are used every year. Put another way, that's about 1 million bags per minute.
When plastic bags were introduced 25 years ago, the plastic people sold us on the idea that plastic bags were better for the environment than paper. And merchants were converted by the cheap factor. Slowly the little brown bag that your kids bought candy in and the brown bag at the farmer's market disappeared. All replaced by the now-ubiquitous plastic bag.

Now I consider myself to be pretty eco-conscious. I've been asking for "paper" at the checkout line for as long as plastic has been an option. I rarely use a zip lock. Lately I've even been reusing bread bags in place of that rare zip lock bag. But there was a lurking convenience that never got my attention: produce bags.

As I've gradually been building the new habit of bringing my own bags to the market, I started thinking about produce bags and how many of them I waste. I throw out about 10 of them every week after just a single use. That's a lot of bags over my grocery shopping lifetime! Meanwhile I'd been hearing about the great pacific garbage patch, everyone started switching away from Nalgene to plastic-free bottles, and a friend pointed out that plastic isn't organic so it never decomposes. I asked the produce people at the market I shop if there is an alternative to plastic produce bags (turns out they don't think so) and made a New Year's resolution to reuse mine at least once before tossing them.

Guess what? I don't have to. The Malaysian article had a link to a site selling reusable produce bags. Who knew there were 8 different types of reusable produce bags to choose from? Sure they aren't free. But neither is the debt that all of us are chalking up every day to the tune of about 1 billion plastic bags. Toxic plastic that breaks down into toxic molecules that our children and grandchildren will all end up consuming. When you are silently adding poison into the environment, why bother washing your fruit anyway?

The plastic industry would like you to think the paper vs. plastic debate is over. And, in some cases like medical devices, it is. But when it comes to the bags I choose to shop with, I'm going to choose reusable, renewable and recyclable options over old-fashion plastic any day.