Friday, May 25, 2007

Paper vs. Plastic vs. Bring Your Own

By Brian Rohter

Should bags be banned?
A recent ban on plastic bags in San Francisco has generated conversations here in our community about the relative environmental impact of paper vs. plastic. San Francisco is the first U.S. city to ban plastic bags, an action that has become popular around the world in places as diverse as South Africa, Taiwan and France. Other countries have imposed a tax on the use of plastic bags, and have seen their use drop by as much as 95 percent.

Portland City Commissioner Sam Adams recently jumped into the fray, convening a group of grocers and others to discuss what Portland should do about the bag issue. Commissioner Adams and his staff put a series of options on the table including banning the bags, taxing the bags or trying to improve the current program of encouraging voluntary reduction. The bags that are being evaluated are the ones that you get at the check stand to carry your groceries away from the store. This new proposed legislation would have no impact on the bags used in the produce or bulk departments for instance.

We generally only use paper bags and don’t even have any of the traditional plastic bags with handles in our stores. Less than one percent of our customers ask for plastic instead of paper (mostly people who are walking a fairly long distance home with their groceries, which seems like a decent environmental trade off) and for those folks we stock really heavy, sturdy plastic bags that will make their lives a little easier. Like many other environmental issues that we face as a society, this topic is not simple and there doesn’t appear to be an obvious perfect solution. Here’s some info on the paper versus plastic vs. bring your own.

Why choose paper?

  • Non-biodegradable plastic bags are made from polyethylene, a non-renewable petroleum product. Paper bags are made from a renewable resource.
  • Plastic bags are difficult to recycle and the large majority of them end up in landfills. A recent study by Worldwatch Institute claims that less than 1 percent of plastic bags are recycled in the United States.
  • Plastic bags that don’t end up in a landfills end up as litter, where they contaminate the environment and endanger wildlife.
  • The process of recycling plastic bags is dangerous as the bags get tangled in the sorting machines and have to be cut out. Paper bags are much easier to recycle.
  • Paper bags hold up to four times as much as plastic bags.

Why choose plastic?

  • The production of paper is highly polluting to our land, air and water, and uses a great deal of energy (ie., fossil fuels). Plastic bags use much less energy than paper bags to produce and transport.

Why not choose reusable?
No matter which side of the debate you come down on, we all can agree that the lowest environmental impact is made by reducing use altogether. A reusable shopping bag made of cloth, hemp or some other fiber can act as a reliable tote for hundreds of shopping excursions.We have inexpensive, reusable bags available for sale in all of our stores, located at many of our checkout lines. They’re only $1.50 each and we’re told they’ll last up to a couple of years. If you can’t find our reusable bags just ask!

Please help us figure out what the next steps should be.
We’d like to be able to report back to Commissioner Adams about what our shoppers think would be the best resolution to this question. Should we ban bags? Should we tax them? Would you be willing to pay 10 to 15 cents per bag every time you needed one or forgot to bring yours from home? Is there some other idea we could come up with to encourage more voluntary participation? We already give a nickel off to all of our customers if they bring back a New Seasons Market bag for reuse or bring back one of our competitors bags or simply put their groceries in a back pack. Please share your thoughts with us we’ll pass them on. Thanks.