Paper or Plastic? Neither One, Please

Here are ways to cut back on wasteful carrying bags.
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We don't really need grocery bags, or most of the other plastic and paper bags we collect on our daily shopping rounds.

How can I be so sure we don't need these ubiquitous sacks that accumulate so readily in kitchen drawers, hall closets and garage storage bins? Because when we have to pay for them, even just a few cents, we stop using them. And we manage to get our milk and bread and miscellaneous goods from store to car to house anyway.

The Sierra Club, among other groups, has

weighed in

on the paper-vs.-plastic question and decided that when it comes to environmental impact, it's a tie. Plastic bags take less energy to make and recycle and they take up less room in landfills.

But paper bags start out as trees, a renewable resource, while plastic bags are made from petroleum. And paper bags are less likely to end up in landfills because more municipal recycling programs take them.

Moreover, cities and chain stores looking to have an environmental impact tend to focus on cutting down on plastic bags because they're far more common. They carry 80% of our groceries, up from 5% in 1982, the Sierra Club reports.

We might think that we can't live without them, but when Ireland levied a tax on plastic bags, usage dropped almost entirely within a few weeks, according to a

New York Times

report

.

And you can't credit that transition to Europeans simply being more willing to go without than we convenience-addicted Americans. The same thing happened when Ikea began charging a mere nickel for plastic bags in the U.S. last March. The store aimed to cut plastic bag use by 50%, but 92% of customers began buying a reusable Ikea bag, bringing their own or simply carrying their Gruva lamps and Sommar candles in their hands. Ikea has since gotten rid of their plastic bags entirely.

Meanwhile,

Whole Foods

(WFMI)

planned

earlier this year to have plastic bags out of their stores by Earth Day, which was earlier this week. The company has been offering nickel or dime refunds to customers who bring reusable bags.

While that encouraged some to kick their disposable-bag habit, it took the market phasing them out to really push people. In Austin, Texas, where it ran a pilot program, the number of refunds rose to more than 60,000 a week from an average of 36,000 over the four months after the store began phasing out plastic.

Meanwhile the city of San Francisco banned the use of plastic bags at major chains within the city a year ago --

NPR

reported

recently on how the city is adapting. And other cities, including

Seattle

, are considering either taxing bags or banning them.

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If the plastic bag is still

king

of the shopping totes where you live -- we still throw away about 100 billion a year, according to the

World Watch Institute

-- you can ask yourself whether you really need all the paper and plastic sacks you're handed in a given day.

Consider a few common-sense ways to cut back. They address some of the more egregious plastic-bag abuse that I spy while standing in checkout lines:

  • Given that we clean or peel all of our fruits and veggies anyway, most plastic produce bags are superfluous. At the very least, skip them for large items like lettuce and banana bunches. And if you can't handle a few apples, peppers and lemons rattling around loose in your grocery cart, carry small, reusable bags for your greens.
  • Skip the bag for the paper towel four-pack that's too big to fit well anyway, as well as for the six-pack of beer and case of soda that come with carrying handles.
  • Don't double-bag everything.
  • Fill up your grocery bags so you aren't one of those people who leave the store with 10 bags for nearly as many items.
  • Practice the phrase "I don't need a bag" for small purchases. When you pop into the convenience store for a quart of milk, Barnes & Noble (BKS) - Get Report for a book, or Radio Shack (RSH) for a pack of batteries, stick them in your purse, messenger bag or briefcase, or just carry them in your hand.
  • When you spend a weekend at the mall, put the shirt you buy at Abercrombie & Fitch (ANF) - Get Report in the half-empty bag you got while shopping at the Gap (GPS) - Get Report.

If you do still accumulate shopping bags, find a way to reuse or recycle them -- less than 1% of bags are recycled now, according to WWI. When they are recycled, they are most often turned into other types of products, like weatherproof decking material that might otherwise use up new plastic.

New York City passed a law requiring major retailers to provide recycling by this summer for grocery bags (and even dry cleaning plastic). I expect that pretty soon other cities will follow suit and that more chain stores will voluntarily provide recycling bins.

In the meantime,

PlasticBagRecycling.org

can help you find places nearby that recycle all kinds of plastic bags. And if that fails, Chester's Clean House offers

19 creative ways to reuse them

.

Plastic shopping bags have become as ubiquitous as they are because they're so utterly convenient. But collecting fewer of them as you go through your day might not be as inconvenient as we've been led to believe.

Eileen P. Gunn writes about the business of life and is the author of "Your Career Is An Extreme Sport." You can learn more about her at

her Web site.