The Saga of the Grocery Store Plastic Bag
Some people overlook the fact that plastic, like other products with a petroleum base, comes from oil, which is drilled from the earth, piped or trucked and later refined. Some properties of oil are manipulated into five principal types of polymers, during the process by which plastic is made from oil. Plastic bags are made from one of these five types, known as polyethylene, which is a highly manipulate-able material – it’s re-useable, printable, and can be formatted into a variety of shapes, sizes and colors. Although the process of making plastic requires energy and may in fact do little else to damage the environment, the negative effects of oil drilling are numerous.
In some ways, plastic bags are no different from paper – including the fact that post-use, they either end up in a landfill or they get recycled. In the landfill, however, it will not compost, and actually interrupts the breaking down of other garbage products with which it is mixed in the landfill. In most cases, to recycle the material, one merely has to melt it down (thereby sterilizing it) and then form it into another shape, for instance, a new bag.
Recycling of plastic bags can take place many times before the material becomes too brittle to go through the process; after these stages of recycling, it can still take on another use as a different functional product.
When plastic is burned during recycling, it can create dioxins and release heavy metals into the atmosphere; the ash from burning plastic is toxic and needs special consideration during disposal. In landfills, plastic does not break down – it always remains plastic, maybe just in smaller pieces that mix in with the earth.
So Which Is Better? Paper or Plastic?
On the plus side, both materials can be recycled, and both materials have multiple uses beyond the initial holding of the groceries. The manufacture of both paper and plastic bags burns through natural resources, and both cause damage to the environment during production. While paper is more recycle-able than plastic, it also results in the destruction of more resources through the process of paper production. I think if you are going to use paper OR plastic bags at the super market, I would say to make sure you maximize the uses you get out of either, and more importantly, be sure to recycle.
Read Part 1 of the 2-part Blog:
Paper or Plastic: The Debate on Grocery Store Bags, Part 1/2
Additional research on the subject of Paper vs. Plastic Grocery Store Bags:
Are Plastic Grocery Bags Sacking the Environment?
Article by John Roach for National Geographic News
Copyright 2008 Easy Ways to Go Green