December 03, 2007
Paper or plastic?

Are plastic bags evil? Some places think so.

In recent years, countries from Ireland to Australia have passed laws to cut use of plastic bags. But the movement only recently gained momentum in the U.S.

While plastic bags were not used widely in supermarkets and other retail outlets until the early 1980s, they're now ubiquitous, and Americans use billions a year.

Last month San Francisco's ordinance began outlawing plastic bags at large supermarkets, encouraging them to use recyclable paper bags or compostable ones made of cornstarch or potato starch. The ban will be extended later to big chain pharmacies.

A number of other cities are also considering plastic bag bans, including Boston; Baltimore; Oakland, Calif.; Portland, Ore.; Santa Monica, Calif.; and Annapolis, Md. In Texas, Austin and El Paso have looked at bans as well.

Yet in Austin, and other cities including New York and Philadelphia, discussions recently have shifted toward plastic bag recycling.

"The only thing we all agreed on was a need to recycle more," said Rick Cofer, who runs a Web site called in support of a plastic bag ban in Austin.

Cofer has participated in meetings with city officials, environmental groups and the plastic bag industry since Austin's city council passed a resolution in April calling for a reduction in plastic bags.

Recycling programs have gained momentum amid concerns that bags made of recycled paper or "bioplastics" would cost more to produce than conventional plastic bags, and consumers could end up paying the bill.

A conventional plastic bag costs about 2 cents to make, compared with 5 to 6 cents for a recycled paper sack and 6 cents or more for a bag made of compostable plastic, said Donna Dempsey, managing director of the Progressive Bag Alliance, a plastic bag industry lobbying group run out of Houston.

The plastic bag industry hopes that recycling programs, if passed in some major cities, could serve as models for the rest of the nation.

"We believe New York is the tipping point," said Isaac Bazbaz, whose family owns Superbag, a major plastic bag supplier to Wal-Mart that has its headquarters and factory in northwest Houston.

I think a greater emphasis on reuse and recycling is always a good thing, even if the price of producing a recycled plastic bag is currently higher than it is for producing a new one. I'd expect that cost to come down as the demand for recycled plastic bags increases, and even without it, easing the burden on landfills makes up for the differential. I'd like to see more incentives for recycling as we go. Perhaps there's still time for Mayor White to address that before he moves on.

By the way, we do use plastic grocery bags for pet waste retrieval and disposal. I also use the plastic sleeves that home-delivered editions of the Chron come in for that purpose. What do you do with yours?

Posted by Charles Kuffner on December 03, 2007 to Society and cultcha

Same as you: poo receptacles for the litterbox and dog walks. And for the occasional time I need to transport a potentially leaky food dish, etc.

I get them at the store when I'm running low; for the rest of my shopping trips, I keep some cloth bags in the trunk to take in and use.

When I was in France last year I noticed that you can get a plastic bag - but they charged you a few cents for it and it was a really crappy little bag, and most people brought along their shopping bags.

Oh, but don't dare ask for one at the boulangerie. They carefully wrap your bread and croissants in adorable paper, and you'd better have figured out how you're getting them home. Plastic bags are reserved for regular customers as a favor, and don't even think of asking for one unless you've been in regularly for a little while. Then you're "in" and you'll get the best bread as well as a bag if you need it. (One of my triumphs was the day that the woman at the bakery in the village near where we were staying offered me a bag. Maybe my terrifyingly bad French made me easy to remember and they realized I was coming in all the time...

Seems to me that if the supermarkets simply added a ten cent fee per bag, you'd see a rapid change of behavior. The market at work!

Posted by: John on December 3, 2007 8:13 AM

When someone compares the cost of plastic bags to that of paper ones, their respective volumes should be considered: it takes 2-3 times as many plastic bags to hold the contents of one paper one, especially the way many grocery stores put so few items per plastic bag. That's one factor. Another is that you can take your paper bags back to the store 4-5 times before they are ready for recycling. There are just too few ways to reuse plastic bags, and you can't recycle them. Paper or plastic? Definitely paper!

Posted by: Gavia on December 3, 2007 11:02 AM

Use the Chron sleeves (you have zero control over that; maybe your neighbors have extra?) as you're doing now. Plastic bags from e.g. WalMart / Albertsons, though, can be recycled (Albertsons and HEB do this; I've seen their collection hoppers). One use, if they don't shred before it's done, and back they go. OR you can take them home, lay them out flat, press out the air and roll them up; they can then be linked by looping the 'handles' together, and this can be macramed or crocheted into a rug. (Like the rag rugs of yesteryear, but very lightweight.)

Posted by: The_Other_Sarah on December 3, 2007 12:04 PM

And, here is where plastic goes to...


Marine scientists refer to that gyre Tannenbaum mentioned as the "Great Eastern Garbage Patch" -- a floating dump that's twice the size of Texas, and by one account is awash with 3 million tons of debris. Slowly circulating currents act like a global drain tornado, slowly drawing trash dumped off the coasts toward its center.

The main Hawaiian islands and the chain of small sea islands to their west act like a giant comb at the fringes of the gyre, collecting bits of floating plastic from all over the world, Tannenbaum said.

Posted by: Support Science to Reverse Global Warming, which Al Gore says is still possible on December 3, 2007 9:39 PM

I use them generally for walks with my dogs. I'm trying, though, to find an alternative doggie bag, because it bothers me that I end up throwing so many of them into landfills and/or the ocean.

I'm also composting my yard trimmings these days....

Posted by: 'stina on December 4, 2007 4:40 PM