The Best Choice for the Environment: Paper, or Plastic?

I mean, we all get asked this about four times a week, right–paper or plastic? And I pretty much have given up on any notions about what is REALLY better for the earth, because how can we truly know? I don’t want to support sinister paper corporations, because they cut down trees instead of growing hemp or reeds or whatever, but then again, plastic comes from sinister oil companies who ream the state and pollute and hire local armies to kill protestors to their operations (cough ShellOilInNigeria cough). The ontological effects of both enterprises are not exactly benign. Which is most eco-friendly? Anybody bold enough to make an assumption?


I always ask for paper bags because objects put in plastic bags tend to roll out and wander all over the car while I’m driving, whereas stuff in plastic bags pretty much stays put. However, since you ask about the environmental effects, trees can be re-planted, and here in the US they pretty much have to replant. It’s called ‘sustained yield’

You could always purchase a reusable cotton, or somesuch, bag, or bags, of your own and fill those at the store and avoid the question altogether.

P.S. Booo!

Probably sewn in sweatshops by diseased and starving 6-year-olds. The best choice is probably not to buy groceries at all.

I read an article a while ago that touched on this. You would automatically assume that paper would be better because its biodegradeable right? Not necessarily.

One big point they made was that it depends on what you do with the refuse. If you just check the paper in a bin and it goes to a landfill then it might take thousands of years to break down because the conditions inside a landfill are anaerobic (no oxygen) which means things break down very slowly. They’ve dug up landfills from the 1930s, and the newspapers are still readable.

Another point was to consider how paper and plastic are made. I think (although i’m not 100% on this point) that manufacturing paper is actually more ecologically damaging than manufacturing plastic.

So from what i can remember, basically if you recycle the paper, paper is better. If you don’t recycle the paper, plastic is better. This i just from an article i read a while ago though - hopefully someone with some more knowledge can more fully answer your question.

Did the article mention which is better if you recycle the plastic? I know a lot of people don’t do that; there used to be more places to recycle bags near me than there are now.

I’d probably vote for cloth, but there is the whole sweat-shop labour problem. Maybe organic cotton grown by goatherding hippies and lovingly hand-picked/ spun/ woven on their farm and selling for about $328 a bag?

On the other hand when I don’t have a cloth bag with me, I choose plastic, and then re-use it to pick up dog poo…

I buy all my stuff at a “wholesale” store (ala BJ’s, Costco’s, etc). They have neither (a situation my dad referred to as “Cash and Carry” when confronted by it the first time).

Something tells me though that you should be more about the container that your medication comes in. You seem to want to one simple answer to a world of infinite possibilities with a healthy dose of conspiracy theory thrown in.

Hey, cotton (or hippy hemp) bags, good one! I forgot about that option. I guess that answers the question.

And if JamesC doesn’t believe me about Shell Oil, perhaps he should do some honest research before resorting to the ‘conspiracy theorist-’-ad hominum attack. I mean it.

(I admit my initial blurb was only a half-truth)

I vote for cloth too. The very nicest thing about cloth is that we don’t have a gazillion paper or plastic bags to deal with each week. String bags will wad up into very small packages, and I find it easy to keep one in my purse so that I have a bag with me in case of impulse shopping. Seriously, I think it’s easier to use cloth bags, once you get into the habit of taking them, just because there’s less to throw out each week.

For those worried about sweatshop practices, I suggest cutting up old jeans and sewing your own bags. Just use the leg portions. You can also make basic box tote bags from heavy canvas, but most people have jeans around the house.

Bring your own bag :stuck_out_tongue:

I have large backpacks I can use.

Cecil Adams on Paper or plastic?

I guess string comes from the labor of low-paid near slaves, but I have netted a number of bags and if I used them at the grocery store I would be ecologically sound. I don’t but that is out of laziness. And they do wad up into small packages. You should get a netting needle and some string and you can do one in a half hour. Also macrame a handle in another half hour. Not hard to learn either.

I prefer paper because

  1. It seems to require fewer numbers of bags to haul groceries when you use paper (and the places that double-bag for plastic are particularly annoying

  2. I’ll re-use paper bags. Sometimes just once - but that’s one time more than the plastic gets used - and sometimes multiple times.

I do about half my shopping at Aldi, where I bring my own paper sacks.

By the way - I make my own bags, both cloth (yes, I usually use old jeans, too) and string (various techniques).