Are paper or plastic bags better for the environment? Plastic bags don't degrade for hundreds of years; making paper bags destroys trees and causes air pollution. Best option: reusable cloth bags.
In the Bag: Are Paper or Plastic Bags Better for the Environment?
BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor (Washington, DC):
Tonight is part of our ongoing series of reports on the environment, AMERICA GOES GREEN, we take on the question that can make otherwise competent adults quake with fear. We've all been there. You come to the end of the checkout line and then comes that question, “Paper or plastic?” For that one brief moment, we grocery buyers are made to feel like the fate of the planet hinges on our decision. Is there a correct answer? Our report on this tonight from NBC News chief environmental correspondent Anne Thompson.
Unidentified Woman #1: One bag is OK?
Unidentified Woman #2: Yeah.
Woman #1: Plastic or paper?
ANNE THOMPSON reporting:
It is the question food shoppers are asked every day.
Woman #1: Is there a bag preference?
THOMPSON: A simple choice that even environmentally conscious shoppers from Whole Foods in Chicago to Stew Leonards in Yonkers find confusing.
Mr. SOKONI KARANJA (Shopper): I generally pick paper because it's more protective of the environment.
THOMPSON: But all too often, convenience rules.
Mr. CLARICE SMITHSON (Shopper): You just caught me on a plastic day. Now I feel guilty.
THOMPSON: Should she? Consumers find themselves between a rock and a hard place when it comes to paper or plastic.
To find out what to do in the grocery store, we turned to Allen Hershkowitz of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Mr. ALLEN HERSHKOWITZ: It depends on where you live.
THOMPSON: Plastic bags threaten wildlife along the coast. So if that's where you call home, Hershkowitz says the choice should be paper. In the heartland, he says, it's plastic.
THOMPSON: I just assumed that paper was the better choice, the more environmentally friendly choice.
Mr. HERSHKOWITZ: People don't realize how big of a footprint the paper industry has.
THOMPSON: Here's how they stack up. To make all the bags we use a year, it takes 14 million trees for paper, 12 million barrels of oil for plastic. The production of paper bags creates 70 percent more air pollution than plastic, but plastic bags create four times the solid waste, enough to fill the Empire State Building two and a half times. And they can last up to 1,000 years.
Plastic, because it's cheaper to produce, is the overwhelming choice of grocery stores across the country. And consumers? Well, the average family of four uses almost 1500 of these bags a year.
San Francisco is limiting consumers' freedom of choice, allowing only biodegradable plastic bags. Here you can see how much quicker the biodegradable plastic on the left breaks down over two months.
“Reuse and recycle” is the environmentalists mantra for plastic and paper, but the best choice, they say, is cloth or canvas and BYOB--bring your own bags. Anne Thompson, NBC News, Yonkers, New York.
Most people's New Year's resolutions are all about self-improvement: exercising more, saving money, learning new skills. This year, enlist your family or friends in a group resolution: reducing your single-use plastic waste.
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