April 25, 2008

Paper Please!

I have never understood why “plastic” is so much better than “paper” in the check-out line. The two most common justifications I have heard are “plastic is recyclable” to “plastic doesn’t kill trees.” Well, let’s use some economic reasoning to rip apart these justifications.

The most obvious point is that paper bags are just as recyclable as plastic bags are, but very few bags, paper or plastic, are actually recycled. What happens to the “recyclable” bags that aren’t recycled? They end up in a landfill. Paper bags are better there, because they are also biodegradable, which gets to the economic argument of this point.

Landfills cost money. Plastic bags last forever. I know that one plastic bag takes up very little space, but the 100 billion plastic bags tossed away each year add up, and huge amounts of economic resources go into maintaining those plastic bags, forever (at least for the 1,000 years it takes for a plastic bag to break down).

But what happens to the plastic bags that are blown away or littered? National Geographic and PBS have recently reported that many of those bags make their ways to rivers, lakes, and oceans and end up in the bellies of wild animals, taking away space for food and leading to malnutrition and sometimes even death. Out in the Pacific Ocean, there is a huge toilet bowl-like water system twice the size of Texas that draws discarded plastic into a huge pool, and some animals in that region have even begun recognizing plastic as viable food sources.

As terrible as this all sounds from a sympathy perspective, from an economic perspective, it is just as troubling. Wildlife funds and environmental clean-up programs must now pump millions of dollars toward cleaning up areas in which the plastic bag pulp, made up of tiny pieces of plastic bags that often outnumber plankton, is depleting fish populations. The decrease in fish then has a ripple effect on the global fish market, a huge source of revenue for many developing coastal nations. Instead of all those millions of dollars going toward other earth-friendly programs, like helping to develop viable fuel alternatives or helping to limit desertification of potential farmland in Africa, it goes toward cleaning up “recyclable” plastic bags.

So, let’s all use paper bags, because even if we don’t recycle them, we won’t contribute to the decline of developing countries’ primary source of revenue. Okay, so farmed forests aren’t as ecologically friendly as wild forests, but this problem seems much less significant on a global scale than dumping BILLIONS of plastic bags, that last forever and have to go somewhere, into landfills and bird bellies. I'm not saying that deforesting the Amazon Rain Forest is the way to go, but recycling paper bags and replanting farmed forests seems like the more sustainable option.


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