When you go to the grocery store, sometimes they still ask you that question. Many are tempted just to say “plastic” because they are convenient, strong, can hold wet things well without breaking, and are really only very small amount of plastic when you think about it.
The problem is that even a very small amount of plastic multiplied by a large number amounts to a huge amount of plastic.
Each year, somewhere on the order 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic grocery bags are consumed every year around the world. Somewhere between 100 and 400 billion of those bags are consumed in the US alone. A vast majority of them go right into a landfill when they are done with their job.
A sizable minority get loose and create non-biodegradable litter which finds its way to rivers and oceans and collecting in huge floating patches in the center of the ocean. The plastic then photodegrades into smaller and smaller pieces until it starts to interfere with the food chain of a wide variety of marine animals, and basically just kills them. The HDPE plastic from which they are made does not biodegrade, so it sticks around in very small bits for thousands of years.
Only a very small fraction of these bags actually get recycled — on the order of 0.5% or so. The problem is that it costs far more to recycle the bags than you can get out of selling the final product (about 60 times or so). It is just not economically feasible to recycle them. That is why you see so few grocery stores advertising that you can recycle the bags with them.
The bags are also a problem on the manufacturing and retail side too. Aggregated, these bags cost grocery stores on the order of $4 billion a year in the US alone. That will eat into profits!
In terms of the plastic used to manufacture the bags, each bag is only a tenth of an ounce or so worth of plastic. But multiplying out, that still accounts for 3 million tonnes of plastic used world wide, not including all the manufacturing waste. This amount of plastic requires a huge amount of oil and natural gas, and a staggering amount of energy to make.
Paper bags are no better. It takes about 4 times the amount of energy to manufacture a paper bag as it does to manufacture a plastic bag. Also, paper manufacturing often releases a lot of toxic chemicals into the environment as well.
I took a look at our own family consumption.
100 to 120 shopping trips a year to the grocery store 4 bags per trip on average = 400 to 500 plastic bags a year!
What can we do about this problem? There are 2 good solutions:
1. Reusable bags
2. No bags at all
For the past few months we have started using reusable bags. The bags we got at my wife’s work and are made from recycled plastic. Another good choice for durability is canvas, which will last years, and is made from natural materials.
At first, we kept forgetting to bring them with us to the store, but now we store them in the trunk of the car at all times so that if we happen to go to the store, we always have them with us. Now I just have to figure out some way of remembering to get them out of the trunk before I walk in the store.
An even better solution is no bags at all. When we go to Costco, they do not offer you bags. You can get old boxes from them, or just stack stuff in the shopping cart. We bring our totes to Costco for the small stuff, but for the mega-packs of things like recycled paper TP, we just keep them free in cart.
No bag at all is also a good option for small purchases at any store. If I go to the store and only get 1 or 2 items, often I just take them as is in my hands. One thing I learned is to keep the receipt out and make sure it is prominently displayed with the items as I walk out of the store so the other employees don’t think I am shoplifting. I have been stopped before by another employee that thought I was just blatantly walking out with stuff.
I also now bring my reusable bags with me if I get take-out food at a restaurant. I ask them to stow the food in my own bag. They are often surprised, but they understand it right away — it is saving them a small amount of money, after all!
So now when we’re asked, “Paper or plastic?” our answer is “Neither!”