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Paper or Plastic? PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by Naomi Baker   

Jeff Wagg notes:

Naomi Baker is a chemical engineer and founder of the Houston Skeptics Society. She is currently in Mexico on her third Amaz!ng Adventure.

Paper or Plastic? How do you answer?  If you give what you think is the 'correct' answer, you say ‘paper' or you've brought your own bags.  Let's examine that choice.

The paper bags used in the grocery stores begin in the forest, with the clear-cutting of forests.  Even though trees are a renewable source, there is more to producing new paper than planting new trees.  The paper industry is one of the dirtiest industries we have.   The chemicals used in the paper pulp process include sulfur, bleaches, and acids.  The process uses huge quantities of water, which must be treated and cleaned, a process which also uses chemicals.  According to a representative of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, paper manufacturing also receives a larger number of complaints than refineries on ‘nuisance odors ‘ which is a term meaning that the facilities emit very strong, disagreeable odors, as unpleasant to live near as a feedlot.   Processing facilities must control odors to the same extent that they must control pollutant emissions.

Paper has a limited ability to be recycled.  On each trip through recycling, paper must be chopped and shredded, which shortens the fiber length.  Eventually, the fibers become too small to use and must be land filled, as do the manufacturing byproducts.

What about plastic?  Grocery stores bags are made of polyethylene, which begins as the ethane component of natural gas.  The only emissions from polyethylene manufacture are from natural-gas fired heaters, which supply heat or steam for the process.  Natural gas is the cleanest burning fuel, and natural gas wells are clean and low-profile - a valve sticking up out of the ground as opposed to the ‘pumping units' associated with oil wells.  The conversion of ethane into polyethylene is close to 99% efficient.  Additionally, polyethylene can be recycled almost infinitely.  Even though the molecular weight of the polymer chains will change with recycling, it's still the same plastic and can be reused.   It is also inert- in some locations, polyethylene has been chopped into sand-sized bits and incorporated into heavy clay soils, to lighten them as you would do with sand.

Transportation adds more cost to the paper product than to plastic.  Paper is heavier, so trucking costs are higher, as is the amount of pollution from the gasoline needed to transport the denser product.

The option with the least environmental impact is to carry reusable shopping bags, which are made of polypropylene, or carry personal bags.  However, if you are faced with a choice between paper or plastic, plastic is the environmentally responsible decision.

 

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Hemp!
written by Valis667, March 11, 2009
About six or seven years ago our government decided to stop shops from supplying free plastic bags to shoppers (We never had paper as an option). So they passed a law that a certain amount (27 cents) be paid by shoppers for each plastic bag and the money thus generated handed over to the government to build and operate recycling centres where the plastic could be recycled. Well, all these years later NOT ONE recycling plant has been built, nor is there any sign of any ever being built! The money, of course, has disappeared into the pockets of government officials.

At the time my solution was to buy several sturdy carrier bags made from hemp. All these years later I am still using them to carry my groceries and they are still in perfect condition!
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written by Otara, March 11, 2009
Im starting to wonder whether topic drift is getting a wee bit far on this site.

Paper is a wee bit easier on marine life and the like, turtles commonly mistake them for jellyfish for instance. Its also considered an advantage that they degrade more quickly, a plastic bag can last for decades in the wild.

Many of the campaigns in Australia have focussed on that side of things rather than the net energy benefit.

Otara
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written by BillyJoe, March 11, 2009
We use large, sturdy, re-usable polypropylene bags. You can pack loads more in them, they never break, and they're much more confortable to carry. You have to be insane to carry your shopping in paper bags. And, as Otara says, the cheap plastic bags don't get recycled and many end up in the ocean choking the wildlife.
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written by MadScientist, March 11, 2009
I'm with Otara; (plain) paper is less hazardous to other animals. Pure polyethylene or polypropylene take a long time to degrade; they don't absorb much of the UV getting to the ground and the polymer chains are broken by oxidation in a very slow process. Of course 'biodegradable' bags are now very common but they're not recyclable and I don't know what's involved in their production (but I'll take a guess that they're still easier and cheaper to produce than paper). On the other hand, plastic lined paper bags may be tougher than plain paper but they're a nuisance.

There's one use I can think of for waste paper: compress them into fuel bricks and burn 'em for heat; why put them into landfill when you can make bricks to burn. Waste plastic can also be burnt in bulk but I'd imagine the furnace design becomes non-trivial.
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written by bosshog, March 11, 2009
How does any of this relate to woo?
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how does this relate to woo?, Lowly rated comment [Show]
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written by hamradioguy, March 11, 2009
I often drive through a paper mill town in Maine en route to Eastern Canada or to visit friends, and I can attest to issues of odor- It can be pretty rank, particularly when there is an atmospheric inversion. (Although, thankfully, you no longer encounter the occasional massive fish kill when a mill dumps acid into the river- In the bad old days it was cheaper to risk the rare fine than to build treatment tanks. These days the downstream environment is fine for fishing and swimming..)

My preference for paper bags at the grocery checkout is because I heat partially with wood, and I'd far rather throw a paper bag into the wood stove than a plastic bag. (OK, I don't really burn the occasional plastic bag- they get recycled to the local Salvation Army store. But I can't help but wonder where these bags eventually end up: In the local landfill, or in someone else's stove?)
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I'll tell you why it's appropriate for this board...
written by huonia, March 11, 2009
... because there really is a "woo" element in the thinking of many people on "paper or plastic." They take it for granted that paper is ecologically superior based on heresay, and this site is devoted to critically examining topics of public (civic) interest.

I think we have room for topics such as this, as long as we keep it in that context. Everything here doesn't have to be about mediums and UFO stories, does it?
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I'll tell you why it's appropriate for this board, Lowly rated comment [Show]
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written by Ernie M, March 11, 2009
I am not certain that all the facts have been accurately analyzed and reported about the total costs, in terms of dollars and energy,
of what it takes to produce/transport/use/recycle, bags constructed of paper, plastic or another material, such as cloth.

China has moved to ban the use of thin plastic shopping bags. Read the Scientific American article here:
http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=china-sacks-plastic-bags
Plastic bags, as described in this article, don't sound environmentally, socially, or economically friendly.

Clearcutting trees might sound bad, too, but read this article from the West Virginia University Extension Service (U.S.A):
http://www.wvu.edu/~agexten/forestry/clrcut.htm
While it doesn't specifically address the financial and environmental impact of making paper bags, it does clear up some misconceptions about clearcutting. I do agree the use of certain chemicals used to process paper products can be hazardous, and produce some very foul-smelling odors, but I'm not convinced this is more damaging to the environment, or that it costs more- to make a paper bag versus a plastic bag.

Naomi's closing statement about using a reusable shopping bag is ambiguous. The more durable plastic bag, made by using thicker polypropylene, is still a plastic. Also, what is a "personal bag" made of, cloth? But her article doesn't include a comparative analysis about the manufacture, distribution, or recycling of cloth shopping bags.

I'd like to see more detailed information about the different types of plastic bags, and to be able to accurately compare them issue-to-issue, with bags made of other materials, such as paper or cloth, before I can make an environmentally responsible decision of which bag is best to use.
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Meat and Potatoes
written by Realitysage, March 11, 2009
All this talk about grocery bags is making me hungry.....
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Canvas Bags
written by Jim Shaver, March 11, 2009
Take your canvas bags when you go
to the supermarket.
Don't use plastic bags when you know,
you know the world can't take it.

Take your canvas bags when you go
to the supermarket, market, market.
Don't use those plastic bags, no, no, no.
You'll feel better for it.


-- Tim Minchin
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written by Kuroyume, March 11, 2009
I'd like to see more detailed information about the different types of plastic bags, and to be able to accurately compare them issue-to-issue, with bags made of other materials, such as paper or cloth, before I can make an environmentally responsible decision of which bag is best to use.


But there is one comparison that just ends the entire discussion. Personal cloth (or plastic) bags are made to be used over and over whereas paper/plastic bags in grocery stores are made to use and toss - especially the plastic ones. If everyone were using durable cloth bags over and over again, this issue would be mostly moot. It is the throw-away economy of society (esp. Americans) that is the most damaging. We all throw away jeans eventually - but not after each wearing! Not until they are too ragged and worn or they no longer fit.
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written by philosaur, March 11, 2009
I will tell you how this relates to "woo'. Aethists are by nature, liberals. Their whole world view is skewed to the extent that they think this "paper-plastic" is relative to this site. Very disappointing.


this topic has NOTHING to do with skepticism. This is a political topic. If you want to discuss the environment then go to another website. Someone please fire Naomi Baker. (dont worry, Al Gore would hire her)


You use of "they" in the first quote is telling. Atheists are naturally liberals? Ever heard of the fallacy of hasty generalization? Also, I think you meant "relevant", not "relative".

You have successfully shown that your grasp of skepticism is tenuous, at best. Go troll somewhere else.


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How does this relate to 'woo'?
written by ZeeZero, March 11, 2009
While it's a pretty mundane debate. I think this post does relate to skepticism.
Before reading this, I would have immediately said, paper is better, because of it's bio degradable potential. But this points out that you've got to look at the whole picture and only after examining all of the evidence can you make a proper assertion.
So I'd agree this isn't a 'hey let's make fun of some woo-woo' type post but it's not completely off base either.
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written by BillyJoe, March 11, 2009
But there is one comparison that just ends the entire discussion. Personal cloth (or plastic) bags are made to be used over and over whereas paper/plastic bags in grocery stores are made to use and toss - especially the plastic ones.

The first and third comment in fact.
I would use hemp bags if I could find them, but reusable durable plastic bags it is at the moment.
Disposable plastic and paper bags are just not in the race.
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written by pxatkins, March 11, 2009
Lots of people where I live use 'reusable' shopping bags. They always get to the checkout just ahead of me and their non-standard bags don't fit over the jig that holds plastic bags open whle the cashier fills them. Each bag has to be rolled down, adjusted to stay still and open, then gingerly filled. Sort that out then come and talk to me.

I also had the pleasure to examine a land fill a few years back which has been there since the early years of the 20th century. We unearthed newspapers from the 1930 that looked like they went in last week!

Skepticism should be applied to all areas, and especially to JREF articles.

I think it's time the voting thing went the way of teh Dodo - it's useless and at best is indicative of taste.
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written by MadScientist, March 11, 2009
@Ernie M:

No costs have been provided about production/recycling of paper (or of polyethylene for that matter), but there is no doubt that polyethylene bags are extremely cheap to produce. The starting product is a gas which is a byproduct of petroleum cracking and the polyethylene plants are typically right next to a petroleum plant so that the gas can be transported by a fairly short pipeline. Without the polyethylene plant, the gas would simply be flared and add quite a few tons per hour of CO2 to our atmosphere. Ethane and ethylene aren't even worth compressing into tanks and selling as fuel, unlike propane which is conveniently liquefied and transported for sale as fuel.
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I use paper
written by Mully410, March 11, 2009
I use paper grocery bags so I can put my newspapers and other recyclables in them. Then I can bring that bad out to the recycle bin in my garage. Our city doesn't allow plastic bags in the recycling bin.
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written by kenhamer, March 11, 2009
I will tell you how this relates to "woo'. Aethists are by nature, liberals. Their whole world view is skewed to the extent that they think this "paper-plastic" is relative to this site. Very disappointing.


I recommend tin foil bags. They can be recycled into hats.
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Critcal Thinking, Really
written by EvaluateThis, March 11, 2009
OK, Skeptics like to slam the "woo". Fine, that's easy. But the real world has its own everyday "woos". I will call this "the worship or belief in conventional wisdom". Conventional wisdom would suggest that something that can be made from a renewable resource i.e. trees, must be the best that we can use in order to keep our planet viable. A skeptic should question this and all assumptions. We should want to do the math, but we can't. We don't have access to the data. Naomi is "qualitatively" correct. The issue is trash generation and the inputs to landfills. If you feel some compulsion to make a difference in your trash generation, do one thing. Minimize the trash you generate. That's it. Nothing more. Plastic bags from the grocery store can be recycled for a while. If we could recycle them for their BTU value, great. Paper can be recycled for a while but will eventually end up in a landfill. We all occupy a specific place on the planet. Some of us have lots of land and no water, some have no land and lots of water, we should behave appropriately. But we should all minimize the trash we produce, paper or plastic. Slamming Woo is fun for a while. This stuff could make a difference.
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written by Hooloovoo, March 11, 2009
My biggest problem with plastic bags is that so many of them turn into roadside trash, wrapped up in trees and fences. While they might not have much long term environmental impact where I live (no sea turtles in Oklahoma), they are very unsightly. I use them, but I'm also careful to keep them from roaming free. I usually reuse them as bathroom trashcan liners, or send them to the local recycle bin. That kid in American Beauty was an idiot. There's nothing beautiful about plastic garbage blowing around. If convincing people to use fewer plastic bags helps keep the roadsides cleaner, I'm all for that. I'm not advising the use of paper bags, but reducing the use of disposable bags in general. It's a tough habit to break, though. I have a couple of canvas bags in my car, and most of the time I still run into the store and forget to take them with me.
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written by DrMatt, March 11, 2009
Any choice is an opportunity for critical thinking.

Sometimes I deliberately get plastic bags--because I can reuse them to clean up after my dog.
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written by gabeygoat, March 11, 2009
i just use my handy dandy back pack
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written by Kuroyume, March 11, 2009
i just use my handy dandy back pack


That's what I did for some years when I lived in Center City, Philly. I had a bike and went to the nearest grocery store with my backpack and used it for transporting groceries. Very convenient and economical. Now I live in the middle of hicksville, nowhere, USA where the nearest store is seven miles away (soon to be nine). Cars are necessary here (trucks, actually, if you get my drift). I used to walk to the store but now it is too far to do that. Welcome to typical Americana.

One thing that I'd like to say about using plastic bags as pooper-scoopers: Hmmmmm. Fecal matter is 'biodegradable' while plastic is not very much so. I understand that within city limits, one must clean up after their pets but that is a sad excuse for plastic usage. It just puts the process off one step before the plastic languishes indefinitely. You could use something more biodegradable and just avoid plastic bags altogether.

Rant: Packaging has become a major biohazard in the past twenty or thirty years. Everything you buy is packed in plastic and cardboard to the point of being pointless. What I see is manufacturers protecting their products (from theivery and such) and forcing us to accumulate the burden in automatic waste in the process. Is all of this necessary? No. It just sells the product and makes it less likely to be pirated. Think about credit cards. How many useless, redundant mails have your received with the 0% APR for credit cards? Until recently, it was nonstop for me (I've received thousands of them!!!). The waste here is catastropic. Billions of tons of paper wasted in luring people to get credit cards - are they insane? Yes. These companies should be lined up and shot for such disregard and greed beyond imagination - they are imbeciles with singular greedy focus. Thus, welcome to the Great 'Recession' (great depression II for those who are following reality). Reminds me of another time (where I wasn't present) where the most opulent swam in firth while the majority swam in squalor. It was during the Enlightenment in France under Louis XIV and Marie Antionette (sic). You know, Viva la Revolucion, Jacques!

One can only hope that as we arise out of this debauchery, the world will reset itself and take a new course in our existence. Yes, humans will only exist here for a few thousand or hundred thousand years. What kind of world will we leave for our future generations? Will we actually leave them a desolate planet devoid of sustainance and full of crap? It is wholly possible if we don't stop being idiots.
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written by Kuroyume, March 11, 2009
1. We're not colonizing the universe. Sorry to be the prophet of reality here but humans (and all life on Earth) was specifically evolved to live on, well, Earth. There is no other place in the universe within reach that can de facto accomodate Earth lifeforms (period - BIG period - many Periods....)

2. Homo sapiens sapiens will be no more eventually. It may be in a thousand or ten thousand years, but humans will pass into oblivion just like every other complex animal in the history of Earth. We may evolve or go extinct but humans are just a step in the very long evolutionary ladder. We are special - but just a fluke and we have no more defense against the usual threats such as meteor/asteroid impacts, long-term climate changes, and such than any other complex animal.

3. We hasten our demise by diminishing resources while increasing our population. It is an evolutionary fact that every species has a 'status quo' at which the optimum number of individuals can exist below which extinction is imminent due to lack of diversity and fitness and above which extinction is imminent due to overextension and resource depletion. Our feable intelligence thinks that it can overcome these realities by inventing means to multiply basic requirements but at the expense of everything else. More land, more crops, more artificial herding of animals, industrialization. Unfortunately, we cannot recreate a whale if all of them go extinct. We cannot recreate ecosystems if we slash and burn them into extinction. It only creates 'borrowed resources' on 'borrowed time' until these systems can no longer sustain the exploitation.

Sorry for going way off topic. But there are correlations here. We are arguing paper vs. plastic. That is a miniscule problem. The problem is humans vs. planet. Humans have been perpetuating this 'unnatural' ethic since the industrial revolution without regard for anything but profit, comfort, and societal gains. The Zen attitude is to just see it as it is and not worry about it. But the conscientious attitude is to examine the trend and see where it might lead us. So far, it leads us to a bleak existence (or none at all). We don't have to become agrarian and live like our more distant ancestors but we should not haphazardly plow ourselves into damnation by expectations unwarranted and untrue, turning a blind eye to the obvious. Can Earth support nine or twenty billion humans? I don't think so. It cannot support four or six realistically. Time to rethink or we are doomed. The time of 'it's someone elses' problem' is over, my friends....

Robert
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Simple Simon Solution....
written by BillyJoe, March 12, 2009
Lots of people where I live use 'reusable' shopping bags. They always get to the checkout just ahead of me and their non-standard bags don't fit over the jig that holds plastic bags open whle the cashier fills them. Each bag has to be rolled down, adjusted to stay still and open, then gingerly filled. Sort that out then come and talk to me.

Fill your own reusuable bags as the cashier clicks the items through.
(Instead of standing there gorking at her like a moron smilies/cheesy.gif )

BJ smilies/wink.gif
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written by BillyJoe, March 12, 2009
That kid in American Beauty was an idiot. There's nothing beautiful about plastic garbage blowing around.

I think you missed something. smilies/wink.gif

BJ
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written by BillyJoe, March 12, 2009
Sometimes I deliberately get plastic bags--because I can reuse them to clean up after my dog.

You're a braver man than I am Gunga Din.
I have never been able to do that.

BJ
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written by BillyJoe, March 12, 2009
i just use my handy dandy back pack

Surely not!!!
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written by Lee, March 12, 2009
"However, if you are faced with a choice between paper or plastic, plastic is the environmentally responsible decision."
But only if both the individual and the government actually go to the effort of recycling them.


"I will tell you how this relates to "woo'. Aethists are by nature, liberals."
Alternatively, there are those that resist the oversimplification of one's entire political thoughts and leanings into a single word.


"Can Earth support nine or twenty billion humans? I don't think so. It cannot support four or six realistically. Time to rethink or we are doomed. The time of 'it's someone elses' problem' is over, my friends...."
Your scaremongering is not welcome here. We reason by logically sound argument, as opposed to ominous, emotion rich language.




As it happens, while this article is a little more tangential to the JREF aims than usual, it is still written with an intent to clarify a topic with plenty of misinformation and hyperbole.

By the way, the cloth bags win.
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written by bosshog, March 12, 2009
As I understand you, any time a choice is available it presents an opportunity for hard-headed no-nonsense skeptics to make a real-world decision based on a strict assay of the objective evidence and thus help spread the light of reason and rationality.
So, who is YOUR favorite Beatle?
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written by SionH, March 12, 2009
Now, I'm no chemist so I can't comment on the veracity of this anecdote, but I did hear that non-biodegradable plastic bags are actually better for the environment than biodegradable ones. The reasoning going like this: non-biodegradable plastic bags sit inertly in landfill (and roadside verges, hedges, etc), whereas biodegradable plastic bags break down releasing all their component chemicals into their surroundings.
This seems to make sense, but I'd love to know if the chemistry backs it up.
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World Population is a Valid Concern
written by Radwaste, March 12, 2009
Concern over population is not fear-mongering. Check this graph. It's not the whole story, but the whole story clearly indicates that dismissing the problem is unwarranted.
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written by Radwaste, March 12, 2009
Well, nuts. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Filesmilies/tongue.gifopulation_curve.svg .
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written by Radwaste, March 12, 2009
AND sub a colon and cap P for the wonderfully useful smilies/tongue.gif. /sarcasm
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written by naomib82@gmail.com, March 13, 2009
@Otara This isn't drift - I am writing about misconceptions commonly held by people uninformed about the science. Some chains are no longer offering paper bags because of the environmental impact. As an engineer and science buff, my information is based on some research and personal training and knowledge of the petrochemical industry and regulations.

@truth64 HAHAHA I have worked 28 years for oil companies and currently run a natural gas processing/ CO2 technology company. It's all about the science. I'm not sure what you want to fire me from, but I tend to vote Republican more than Democrat, and think Al Gore's father was a shill for Armand Hammer (good friend of Stalin) and that Al Gore rose to his position through connections than any actual brain cells.

My post had nothing to do with politics, it had to do with the impact. Plastic bags may linger longer, but the paper manufacturing causes more damage up front.
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written by Otara, March 13, 2009
I guess my question is whether this site is for every belief that people have 'wrong'. To me if it gets as wide as some of the topics have been recently, it loses its value in my view.

My other critique is in regards to the fact that you acknowledged no downsides to supermarket plastic bags, when some clearly exist.
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written by BillyJoe, March 13, 2009
To repeat, paper and plastic disposables are not in the race.

The choice is between reusable polypropylene and reusable hemp bags.
My problem with hemp bags is their unavailablitiy and their aesthetics. Hemp stinks, feels terrible, and is not easily folded flat - unless things have changed since the last time I looked.


Finally...
Some people have a very narrow view of what topics should be covered in Swift. I would get positively bored if all we had here were stories about scam artists, psychics, mediums, and ghosts.

BJ

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written by Caller X, March 14, 2009
written by DrMatt, March 11, 2009
Any choice is an opportunity for critical thinking.

Sometimes I deliberately get plastic bags--because I can reuse them to clean up after my dog.
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written by gabeygoat, March 11, 2009
i just use my handy dandy back pack


Ewwwww....
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What the hell...
written by Appenzeller, March 14, 2009
@Naomi: HAHA. What the father of Al Gore and his friends has to do with Al Gore's opinions? Even if Al Gore is a Stalin's relative, does it make global warming (or cooling) not to occur? Vote however you like, but your political views will not make polyethylene decompose any faster.
And ad rem: Slow decomposition of polyethylene is a benefit. Do any of you complain that silicon oxide (sand) decomposes too slow? Polyethylene will simply stay as an inert constituent of soil. It is generally rather dirty production of all oil derivatives, and spending non-renewable deposits of oil and gas, which should be our concern. Here, I see paper as a winner, despite its stinking production process. And there is, it seems, nothing better than reusable bags (whatever material they are made of). We are living in the "disposable" civilisation, and we will presumably be sorry because of it sooner or later, but too late for sure. Read Simak's "Children of our children". Makes think a bit.
Out of topic a bit: I heard somewhere that we cannot produce more stainless steel products, because people working in steel industry will loose their jobs. That "disposable" civilisation once again.
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written by sailor, March 15, 2009
While I think it is good for a Skeptic to question all matters, including this, it will get a bad reputation if it keeps coming up with half-arsed commentry like this and the one on solar panels.
The problem here is that the manufacture of plastic bags has never been the issue, so the whole article is a red-herring. It is their DSIPOSAL which is at issue, as has clearly been pointed out by several people.
Plastic may be recyclable, but I have rarely seen a place that accepts plastic bags. Furthermore where they do the most harm in the less developed nations there is not recycling, they end up all over the land and in the sea where they clog things up, kill turtles and do damage.
The simple answer is ban supermarkets form giving any kind of bag. People will bring their own. If they forget they can take a cardboard box - nearly everything that comes to the supermarket does so in a box, the supermarket has to dispose of these having you take one is a great way to get rid of them.
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Paper
written by Adrian Lopez, March 15, 2009
Naomi,

Your statements about the environmental impact of paper bags begin with a comment about the "clear-cutting of forests", which strikes me as blatant exaggeration. Paper bags aren't the only items produced by the paper industry, nor is paper the only product of the logging industry. To blame clear-cutting on paper bags is a rather like blaming beach-destroying oil spills on plastic ones. It's not an honest comparison.

As for your mention of the chemicals involved in the production of paper: can the harmful chemicals used by the paper industry be blamed specifically on paper bags, or are you again ignoring the fact that the paper industry produces many more products than just brown paper bags? Are the chemicals involved in the production of, say, white paper generally the same as those used in producing brown paper bags.
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written by naomib82@gmail.com, March 16, 2009
Adrian Lopex and others: When you try to cover a complex topic in 3-4 paragraphs, you can't cover all bases and must make some assumptions. I did not intend to imply a clear-cut forest goes 100% brown paper bags, or that only these bags use chemicals in the paper mill. People tend to focus on what they can SEE, and they see plastic bags blowing in the wind or dramatic pictures of bags ending up in the ocean. The pre-use cycle of paper vs plastic includes such information such as that manufacturing plastic bags uses 6% of the water that paper does, and 71% less energy (ethane to polyethylene is extremely energy-and chemistry efficient), and is essentially non-polluting, compared to the manufacture of paper. Post-consumer, paper bags take up about 5 times the space in landfills for an equivalent carrying capacity, paper decomposition in anaerobic landfills precedes slowly (30-year old newspapers mined from landfills are intact and readable), paper decomposition gives off CO2 and methane gas while plastic does not, the cellulose fibers in bags do not break down and compost, and so on. Ethane does not usually come from petrochemical refineries, it is a component of natural gas, and polyethylene plants are usually built next to a natural gas liquids pipeline, not an oil pipeline.

The point of all this is to prod people into investigating the entire story, as you would with any other popular misconception, and not accept what appears to be conventional wisdom.
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Faulty arguments
written by ozwire, March 16, 2009
My two cents worth!

There is a lot of faulty logic in the supermarket bag wars.

Two main reasons are given for stopping plastic bag use (1) the waste of resources, and (2) the environmental damage – cue picture of turtles strangling in plastic. Both arguments are quite spurious in regard to lightweight supermarket bags.

Take issue (1)- waste of resources. People who use lightweight plastic shopping usually take their shopping home in their bags. Most then use those bags to package up household waste for trash disposal, so many bags are recycled anyway. Consider then how many non-users then turn around and buy heavy duty garbage bags instead. The waste of plastic is overstated. In any case if you look at the weight of a shopping bag it is far less than one plastic soft drink (soda) bottle LID so just buying one less of bottle of drink in the shopping will save more resources than a week’s shopping bags.

Don’t start me on those proliferating humungous plastic (water filled) road barriers- look how much weight of plastic they use. I SAY BAN THE TUPPERWARE PARTY as well! This issue vastly over-inflated.

Take issue (2)- plastic bags only get into the environment if we put them there! How many householders actually fling their empty shopping bags into the wind so they end up in waterways? The overwhelming source of this type of garbage is likely to be from fisher-persons, or lazy people eating takeaway on the waters edge. Why saddle supermarkets with the problem? have a go at bait shops and fish and chip shops.

Phillip
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Hemp!
written by gebobs, March 16, 2009
The heck with that. I'll weave the bags from the leftover stalks of my C. indica...if the government would let me.
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written by BillyJoe, March 16, 2009
Naomi,

You made sense the first time.
And I'm with you on the reusable polypropylene bags.

BJ
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written by Paul Murray, March 19, 2009
The paper bags used in the grocery stores begin in the forest, with the clear-cutting of forests.

Well, as often as not it begins on the pine plantation, with the regular harvesting of pine trees.
The chemicals used in the paper pulp process include sulfur, bleaches, and acids.

OMG! Teh chemicals!
What the author is saying may be true, but the way is is expressed is unconvincing. Every industry where they - you know - make stuff involves chemicals.
What about plastic? Grocery stores bags are made of polyethylene, which begins as the ethane component of natural gas.

Plastic produces chemicals not normally found in nature - and which the ecosystem has trouble processing - from fossil carbon, adding to the carbon burden. Pine trees make fibre out of existing atmospheric carbon, which fibre is easily biodegradable.

The stuff about recyclablility is a red herring: shopping bags wind up in landfill.

In any case - I imagine the best environmentally friendly shopping strategy is
* buy less, dammit
* buy stuff that does not have excessive packaging
* use a string bag (plastic is ok), or canvas, or anything reusable, to carry it home in.
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written by Geek Goddess, March 19, 2009
Two different people mentioned 'red herring' although in different contexts. Red herring implies a digression. Plastic bags can be recycled, and there are collection sites that accept bags in my neighborhood. Paper bags also end of in landfills, and as I pointed out, don't compost all that easily and take up more volume than an equivalent carrying capacity than plastic. To mention that the bags can be recycled endlessly, as compared to paper, is in no way a red herring, when the issue is the overall life cycle impact of these two options.
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written by BillyJoe, March 20, 2009
"Recycling" is indeed a red hering when the solution is "Reusable".

smilies/wink.gif

BJ
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