Paper or Plastic? used to be the question at the supermarket. But unless you've been in a coma for the past few years, the answer is steadily becoming neither as more people are moving to reusable grocery bags.
And what's wrong with the plastic bag? Well, first, it's made of petroleum, a non-renewable natural resource. If we have a resource that of limited supply and we're depending on that resource for transportation and growing food, why squander on making bags to carry our groceries. And the option of paper bags carries even heavier consequences.
Plastic bags can take many hundreds of years to decompose in a landfill and landfills are designed in a way that actually discourage decomposition. Future archaeologists digging through our landfills might be puzzled as to why we spent so much resource creating shiny plastic sacks designed for the sole purpose of carrying small products from one location to another--often for a period of no longer than 30 minutes.
Also, a large number of plastic bags don't even make it to the landfill. Instead they end up clogging storm sewers and waterways. Millions of bags even make it into the ocean, where they are currently contributing to the Pacific gyre 'plastic trash float'--an area the size of Texas. Ninety percent of all the trash in the oceans is plastic.
This plastic ends up sickening and often killing tens of thousands of marine animals each year who become entangled in the plastic or choke or get sick while trying to ingest it as 'food.'
Additionally, most plastic bags are made of polyethylene (also known as polythene), which can be hazardous to manufacture. And there is almost no market for recycling plastic bags. Your local supermarket may collect plastic bags but the numbers that are actually recycled are low.
One exception to this is Trex, which recycles plastic bags to manufacture decking and fencing materials. Trex even has a program where school-wide competitions are held to see who can collect the most plastic bags to recycle.
Some cities are now taxing plastic bags. Others, like Brownsville (TX), are now banning them.
Shoppers using reusable bags are finding many advantages however. They hold a lot more goods than a plastic bag. Five plastic bags of groceries can often fit into two--making fewer trips between the car and the kitchen. And the bags are strong. There is no the fear of walking across a parking lot wondering if that large jar of pasta sauce is going to break through and crash on the pavement.
One minor concern with the bags is that over time, they can collect a form of coliform bacteria. Most strains are harmless. But you can easily avoid the problem by just throwing the bags into the washer occasionally.
And of course, the remaining obstacle: Will you remember to actually take them into the store? Try to keep them in your car. It's like any habit and one day as you're getting out of the car, you'll wonder: "Hey, am I missing something?" Some stores like Central Market at Coit and the Tollway, have signs in their parking lots that say, 'Did you forget your reusable bag.'
If you do forget, there's always 10 Uses for Plastic Bags.