The moral urgency of “plastic or paper?”

Here’s my August column for the Holland Sentinel:

“Paper or plastic?” the person at the grocery cash register asked, without looking up (or saying hello).

“I brought my own bags,” I said, proudly, holding them up for her to see. And with that, of course, she looked up—to get a good look at the tree-hugging Green Panther standing in front of her.

I’ll never know if I fit her image of an environmentalist, because she quickly looked down again and began to scan my items before placing them in my reusable bags.

The problem with our use of plastic is not hard to describe. Every year eight million tons of plastic enter our oceans in the form of trash. The “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” also known as “the Pacific trash vortex,” which contains mostly plastic but other trash as well, covers a vast area—with estimates ranging from 270,000 square miles (the size of Texas) to 5,800,000 square miles (the size of Russia). “Alarming” is not the word I would choose to describe this situation, but it’s a good start.

So, I wonder, wouldn’t a ban on the use of plastic bags at grocery stores be a good first step to take, in the same category, I suppose, as banning plastic straws in restaurants? Why are we not doing this?

As it turns out—and I was surprised to learn this—enough states have already banned the use of plastic grocery bags, including California and New York, that the result of taking this action is now more or less known. Studies show that in cities and states where bans have been enacted, there was an unintended consequence—namely, that the sale of plastic trash bags increased dramatically. The sale of the four-gallon trash bag, for example, increased 120 percent after the bans were enacted.

Why? Turns out that people who used plastic grocery bags to line their garbage cans or to pick up after their dogs still needed bags. And—get this— trash bags are significantly thicker than grocery bags, so about 30 percent of the plastic that was eliminated by the ban comes back in the form of thicker garbage bags, which are even worse for the environment.

Then, what about paper bags? Once again, the reality is a bit more complicated. The studies just cited show that paper bags can be even worse for the environment than plastic bags. They require the cutting down and processing of trees, for example, which involves lots of water, toxic chemicals, fuel, and heavy machinery. While paper is biodegradable and avoids some of the problems of plastic, the huge increase in paper use, plus the uptick in use of plastic trash bags, actually results in an increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

You can imagine how discouraged I was at this point in my reading, but I decided that I might be on to something by taking my own reusable bags to the grocery store. I lived in Europe for a few years, and I quickly learned that I needed to furnish my own bags when I reached the check-out line with my cartful of groceries. The bags I bought then are the bags I’m using today. One of them even has a nice Swiss flag on the side. Certainly, I thought, this would be a possible solution to our plastic bag problem.

But sadly, no. Still another study, this time by the government in the U.K., determined that I would have to use my beloved cloth bags 131 times to reduce its global–warming potential below that of plastic grocery bags used only once. To have less impact on climate than plastic grocery bags which are used a second time—to line the garbage can or pick up after the dog—I would need to use my cloth bag 327 times.

All of this is discouraging, as you can imagine. I try to do the right thing. I love the planet and want to do all I can to preserve it for my children and grandchildren. Switzerland, the country where I once lived, makes the care of its mountains, lakes, and forests a national priority, and the result is obvious to anyone who visits. With one of the world’s highest per capita GDPs, it’s hard to argue that this priority is holding Switzerland back economically. I wish my own country would do something similar.

Beyond that, my faith compels me to be a good steward of what God has created. The command is found as early as the second chapter of the Bible. The human, we read, is told to “keep” the garden, a command that’s hard to ignore. But figuring out how to keep the garden, I’ve discovered, isn’t always clear.

Frankly, I wish that the “paper or plastic” question would have more of a moral urgency than it does, that more of us realized how our choices have consequences. I can’t be the only one who is concerned.

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.

2 Responses to The moral urgency of “plastic or paper?”

  1. Jim August 2, 2019 at 5:39 pm #

    I agree with you Doug!

  2. Steve Stimpson August 2, 2019 at 9:29 pm #

    Good evening, Doug,

    You present a very thoughtful article this month. Elise and I have been using a European-brand set of five nylon bags for almost a year now. The stigma of being called a Yankee for using them is the most trauma we’ve felt. A few syllables of my North Carolina dialect in friendly conversation with the checkout agent correct that prejudice. Too often I buy only an item that will fit in my pocket, but clerks are very quick to put even one item in a bag before I can say, “No bag, please.”

    Hmmm, millions of tons of trash in the oceans? Easy to believe, but not all being plastic bags or bottles, hopefully. I’ve seen the incessant fleet of tug boat-pulled barges of trash from New York City alone to be dumped offshore viewed from LaGuardia Airport during my aviator days. The squadrons of seagulls accompanying the barges were one stage of disposal I suppose. I prayed then for a maximum of biodegradables aboard, but remained appalled at the size of that operation for one large city. Are fewer barges dumping garbage today than in the 1980-90’s? Hmmm; very likely there are more than ever.

    The landfills in South Florida are the highest points of elevation in our driving radius. One is on the eastern approach path into Fort Lauderdale International Airport. Those elevated areas and the birds that hover there are both aviation hazards, so to speak. Those elevations seem to be climbing upward as well as outward. (I suppose no one would want a condo on the approach path into a busy international airport, so why not a land fill?)

    If I recall from the 1960’s there was the DyDee Diaper Company that used to bring clean diapers to our house during my brother’s days of infancy and remove the soiled ones in a months-long, if not years-long contract. Now I shudder to think of all the plastic-infused natural or artificial fibers that once were unimagined during the DyDee era. I suppose no one has laundered diapers in this century choosing instead to trash the used ones and purchase more.

    Where would we be as a society without plastic water bottles? I do my best to drink water from our triple-filtered, Reverse-Osmosis water from my reusable, stainless steel canteen, but I think I am in the minority. Elise opts to refill plastic water bottles about 90% of the time. Funny enough the strongest plastic bottles I’ve noticed are the Gatorade and iced tea bottles off the shelf at Publix; they are certainly candidates to be reused, but I don’t think they are in any significant percentage.

    The issue of climate control is a huge one in the upcoming 2020 election. I am not denying there is man-made damage to the climate, but I really don’t see a tax, or fees, solving the trends. Why solar-heated water and solar-powered electric panels aren’t more incentivized I don’t know. Well, I think I know, but that is a whole other issue. I remember discussing the ever-hotter summers here with the man that used to service our pool. He had succinct information on the amount of foliage he knew in the 1950’s when he started his career versus the concrete and asphalt replacements in roads, parking lots, dwellings, etc. How could the simple physics of swapping cooling foliage for concrete and asphalt not result in a higher ambient air temperature and that impact the moisture-bearing clouds there over.

    I remember night-flying with Eastern Air Lines in the late 1980’s and viewing the traffic along Highway 27 pointing directly to Runway 9 Left in Miami from overhead Tampa, FL. When I retired in 2010 you could not distinguish Highway 27 on that path with a reconnaissance photo and a magnifying glass. That in my opinion is a prime example of the foliage-for-concrete exchange. I can only laugh at the well-intentioned folks that think their proposals are going to reverse anything of that magnitude.

    Oh, well. Enough of that.

    Elise and I enjoyed “The Truth About Who We Are: Letter to My Grandchildren.” I envy your grandchildren having their lineage so well documented. It sounds like you would answer the question, “How are things going?” the same way I do, “Life is so good I feel guilty.” Godspeed all your endeavors.

    Steve Stimpson