Paper or plastic? There is no clear-cut or easy answer. But when you do the research, and interview the scientists who devote their lives to studying the effects of toxic waste and plastic pollutants on our environment, most tend to lean one way. Below, you'll find my response to a recent editorial posted in The Pelhams-Plus that argued (I believe incorrectly) how paper bags are more environmentally destructive than plastic ones. In my original letter I included links to back up every fact and assertion I presented, but they were not included on the live post. So I'm sharing the letter here, links included, for anyone who would like to fact-check for themselves.
Letter to the Editor / The Pelhams - Plus
This letter is in response to the recent editorial written by Richard Ellenbogen regarding the use of paper versus plastic bags. He argues that the production and transport of paper bags do more damage to the environment than plastic bags do, and that any efforts to choose paper over plastic are misguided.
With all due respect to Mr. Ellenbogen, I would kindly like to add to the conversation--and make a case for implementing a usage fee for both plastic and paper bags.
Before I do, please be aware that Mr. Ellenbogen’s companies, Garboliner and Allied Converters, Inc., both manufacturer plastic bags, as well as cellophane, polypropylene, laminating, and other products. To not acknowledge fully his own business interests is an important omission, as he profits from the continued use and sale of plastic bags.
Even so, Mr. Ellenbogen makes some valid points. Paper bag production is not without environmental cost, as he illustrates through various graphs and charts to buffer his position, none of which I’ve independently verified.
Still, even if his facts and figures are to be accepted at face value, his argument ignores several fundamental truths:
1. Trees are a renewable resource. In his example, he cites the cutting down of 17 trees as a con, yet most paper comes from plantation trees and second-growth forests that are cultivated and replenished, not old-growth forests, to draw down carbon in the process. Yes, a negative environmental impact remains, and the EPA cites the paper industry as a notable and regulated polluter. Yet this negative impact is reduced through the replanting and growing of trees—which absorb carbon dioxide and other harmful gases such as sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide, even as they release oxygen into the atmosphere, combatting climate change—as other trees are being harvested.
2. He details how paper mills contaminate our water systems and produce greenhouse gas emissions. Yet the extensive environmental damage done from oil extraction—a necessary step in plastic production, since 99% of plastic comes from fossil fuels—cannot be ignored. Nor can the significant role extracting oil to produce plastic has on climate change, which 97% of publishing scientists agree is now a planetary crisis. I invite your readers to review the following release from the Center for International Environmental Law, which details new research on the role of fossil fuels in plastic proliferation: http://www.ciel.org/news/fueling-plastics/
3. Paper bags biodegrade. Quickly and easily. (Get caught in a bad rainstorm and yours may begin to do so before you manage to unload your groceries.)
4. Plastic bags do not—and this point cannot be underscored enough. Every piece of plastic ever produced since the inception of this so-called miracle product in 1907 is likely still with us somewhere on the planet. Scientists estimate plastic takes 500–1,000 years to fully break down, seeping toxic chemicals into our soil and water while wreaking havoc on our ecosystems, the health of wildlife, and, yes, on human endocrine health. Therefore, the environmental and health costs of using plastic bags must be measured not only in their production and transportation, but also in the harm they may level as they’re being used, and continue to deliver, long after they’ve been discarded.
5. Eight million metric tons of plastic enters our oceans each year. (Please visit 5gyres.org to read about the sea expeditions these scientists take to quantify plastic pollution levels in our oceans.)
Globally, 1 MILLION single-use plastic bags are used every 60 seconds, with only 1% recycled each year. Many wind up in our life-giving oceans—and make no mistake, if the oceans die, so do we—where the planet’s five, enormous, blender-like currents (called gyres) shred them and other plastics into small particles. This plastic “smog” now blankets our oceans’ surfaces in every direction, even in the remotest of waters hundreds of miles from land that look pristine to the naked eye. Marine life regularly mistake plastic particles for food, introducing toxic chemicals into the food chain. (Being seafood lovers, we humans are now dining on plastic, too.)
So, forget about the mythical island of plastic trash the size of Texas dubbed the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” While the media continue to fixate on this mostly inaccurate fish tale, experts say the floating island of trash is comprised mainly of discarded industry fishing gear and debris washed out to sea from the 2011 Japanese tsunami. Our plastic problem is so, so much worse than an island of trash that could theoretically be cleaned up. Our oceans are quickly becoming a plastic soup, and if we don’t make a change soon, by 2050 there will be more plastic in our oceans than fish.
I sincerely appreciate Mr. Ellenbogen’s defense of his position. What’s more, ultimately, I agree with him! (This is where I resist an easy, binary argument.) Because we shouldn’t use paper bags, either. Especially when you consider the average lifespan of a retail bag is just 12 minutes, from store to trash can. We—meaning almost all of us—consume and discard with impunity, few of us considering anything more urgent than our own immediate convenience.
Americans (and all global citizens) must acknowledge that as population tallies soar (the UN estimates we’ll add another 11.2 billion human beings to the planet by 2100), resources become overtaxed, and plastic pollutants destroy the delicately balanced, symbiotic ecosystems that sustain us all, we must act. If not for own sakes, then for the sakes of our children, and for the children they’ll eventually want to bring into the world.
This begins first by the elimination of all single-use plastics—including straws, water bottles, and, yes, bags—followed by refusing the use of paper bags, too. The primary goal of local organizations such as Pelham Eliminates Plastics (PEP) and EcoPel is not to have merchants offer paper bags in lieu of plastic ones—it’s to change consumer habits to prevent the use of both. Bringing reusable bags to the store (every single time) is a tiny first step in confronting this enormous problem—but it’s one that, if collectively taken, would help make for a true sea change.
This is why I would encourage a usage fee for both plastic and paper bags, with perhaps a slightly higher charge placed on the former. A fee may be the only way to wake people up to this crisis, and force a change. If one must make the choice, given all we know about the widespread destruction that plastics level over both the long and short terms, I would—much like the Sierra Club and The Environmental Literacy Club—reluctantly choose paper bags.
Lauren Paige Kennedy
Journalist and mentor to the students of PEP (Pelham Eliminates Plastics)
This editorial is supported by The Board of Directors of EcoPel (Environmental Coalition of the Pelhams)