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Paper or Plastic? Neither.

1,219 words

Here’s a simple answer to a question that most people are asked several times a week that will not only take care of an environmental problem but will also help people become more self-reliant and responsible for themselves — something that most of them desperately need to do.

We’ve all heard in the stores when buying something whether we want the purchased item(s) to be placed into a paper or a plastic bag. For some people the answer doesn’t matter, but for others it poses an environmental dilemma of Hamlet-like proportions. For these latter folks, there is a problem with the choice because it seems that neither option is a good one. And they are right.

If they choose plastic bags they are contributing to an environmental problem of unquestionably epic size. It is easy for anyone to see how harmful plastic shopping bags are to the environment. Many of these disposable packaging “conveniences” end up as windblown detritus in urban areas, along roadways, and anywhere else where they can be carried. (I’ve often seen them in the desert backcountry of the American southwest, many miles from the nearest town.) Not only that, but the plastic bags also work their way into the oceans, where they kill sea creatures of all types — fish, mammals, reptiles, and so on — and contribute to the already huge mass of plastic waste that pollutes the seven seas.

Of the between 500 billion and a trillion plastic bags that are produced worldwide annually, millions end up as trash and other forms of pollution. Carelessly discarded, they kill wildlife and livestock which are unfortunate enough to accidentally ingest them. And while plastics bags actually do not take up a lot of space in landfills (about 2% by some estimates — which is still 2% more than 0%), those that do degrade the environment as they very slowly decay and their remnants infiltrate soil and seep into water tables. So clearly, plastic bags are not an intelligent packaging choice for anyone who is concerned about the future of the quality of natural life on this planet.

That leaves the choice of the paper bag. These might seem to have less impact on the environment after they are disposed of, and certainly discarded paper bags decompose faster than their plastic counterparts. But when you consider that they are made from cut-down trees, the negative environmental impact of their manufacture — from logging to milling to pulping to finishing — is clear. (Also, paper products make up most of the mass of landfills, so even paper bags which make it to these disposal centers contribute to the overall pile of human garbage — especially so when you consider that paper that is buried in a landfill takes a long time to decompose.)

So if both plastic and paper bags are problematic (and, in fact, unacceptable), what could a correct solution be? Many so-called progressive thinkers on the topic today call for people to use reusable bags, and certainly many store encourage such a policy. And that is a step in the right direction. But what about people who do not use reusable bags, either because they simply don’t use them or because they might have forgotten to bring such a bag along on a particular shopping expedition?

Well, the answer of what to do in such circumstances is actually quite simple, and it doesn’t involve paper or plastic. No, in such instances stores should offer no bags at all. In other words, customers can either bring their own reusable bags (made out of cloth, plastic, or whatever other material) and pack their own groceries or other purchased items, or they can have their items redeposited loose into their shopping carts or baskets so that they can take them out to their vehicles and sort them out there, just putting them loose into their cars if necessary. (I’ve done this personally scores of times when I didn’t bring a bag along on a shopping excursion. The procedure is really not as inconvenient or chaotic as it might seem upon first consideration.)

This solution is not as draconian or inconvenient as it sounds. After all most people purchasing things have ample time to bag their own items. (How many times and how long have you stood waiting in the line of a super market while the person ahead of you just stands there while the clerk is ringing up their purchases, instead of they buyer bagging what they’ve bought while they wait? And how often is this wait of double duration as the clerk then has to bag the items for the sedentary customer instead of going ahead and waiting on you? I bag my own purchases all the time, just so I can get out of the store before the sun goes down.) This is just self service, just like the procedure has been the practice in the vast majority of gas stations for decades. If people can learn to pump their own gas, they can learn to bag their own groceries.

And if a person doesn’t have a bag, the clerk can just return their purchased items to whatever cart or basket they brought them to the checkout counter in and the customer can carry them out to their car (or wherever) loose and deal with them when they get there. (If this is the only other option of what will happen to purchased items, people will learn to bring their own reusable bags very quickly. People are, after all, animals. Some of them might be fairly sophisticated animals, but no matter what stage of evolution a human creature has reached most of them catch on pretty quickly when they have to take an action that serves their interests or makes things easier for them. So it would take no time at all before most people learn to bring reusable bags or other containers with them when they shop.)

Now there is one final consideration that might enter into this equation, and that is the fact that there will be people who are against this idea because it would cause the persons who manufacture paper or plastic bags to lose their jobs.  But this consideration is not worth even the slightest thought, because people lose their jobs all the time to the march of progress. No job is a sure thing for life. Just think of the people who used to manufacture buggy whips. With the onset of the automotive age, they had to — and did — find a new means of employment. Never should the continuation of a person’s job be a justification for continuing the manufacture of products that are not only destructive to the planet but are also completely unnecessary.

And finally, let’s not fail to mention one final advantage to this new plan, specifically that when people bag their own food or other items, it makes them more self-reliant, and thus makes them better people. It improves their character. The more that people are able to fend for — to take care of — themselves, the more healthy they will be. They will be more naturally alive. And that’s what the whole Naturalist movement is about.

So remember: Paper or plastic? Neither. Because in this case, nothing is better than both.


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  1. whodareswings
    Posted August 30, 2011 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    Whenever I’m asked “Paper or plastic?” at the check out stand I just tell them , “I’m bisacktual” and let hem handle the choice.

  2. Sandy
    Posted August 30, 2011 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    Is it my imagination or do actors in the movies always have their groceries in paper bags when returning from the grocery store? I myself seldom use either paper or plastic as I trundle all my shopping out to the car and dump it all in the trunk. the payoff comes on garbage day!

  3. CaptainEuro
    Posted August 31, 2011 at 12:56 am | Permalink

    The question is, if plastic bags are used to collect rubbish (and then be disposed of) then the problem will still persist no matter how many measures we take in order not to use them so much. On an industrial basis the solution would be a more environmentally friendly alternative material to both paper and plastic. I bet this must have been created already some time in the past. But of course, plastic must be a lucrative business for some.

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