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Paper or Plastic? Nitty-gritty

By Ethan Estess

Once and for all, I'd like the answer: paper or plastic?

Asked by Jerry Adler from New York, N.Y.


I’m big on hope these days. I’m getting sick of all the Doomsday stories about the environment and I’m focusing more thought on stories about positive change. It turns out that the grocery bag issue is one where some creative grassroots activity and progressive political reforms have made some solid progress.

The reality is that the Paper vs. Plastic question extends far beyond the checkout aisle; it is being hotly debated at the governmental level internationally. A variety of approaches have been pursued to eliminate or curtail the consumption of single-use bags, from all-out plastic bag bans such as the ones in San Francisco, to bag taxes in Washington, D.C., and Ireland. In addition, people are exploring alternative social designs to directly take on our single-use addiction. I’m working with a team of students that is exploring ways to make Stanford the first plastic-bag free campus in the world.

In the United States, lawmakers trying to implement a bag ban often come up to some stiff opposition from the plastics industry who raise the point, “Is paper any better than plastic?” The way this has played out in the state of California, where there is no statewide bag ban, is that individual counties have to cough up the funding for comprehensive environmental impact reports (EIRs) to demonstrate that the proposed bag ban would not be detrimental to the environment. This scheme has stopped bag bans in their tracks in cities like Oakland and Fairfax that lack the funds to create these expensive reports or fight lawsuits by the plastics industry.

What have these environmental reports found? Pretty much what the Essential Answer told us, which is that paper bags, though they don’t directly harm marine life like their plastic counterparts, have some nasty environmental impacts. They’ve also shown that compostable bio-plastic bags aren’t a cure-all either, as they take significant resources to produce and don’t actually break down in anything but an industrial composter. Despite this reality, for many coastal cities, the chance to prevent the degradation of their marine ecosystems has trumped the negative aspects of paper bags. In fact, Santa Clara County, in which Stanford University resides, recently passed a ban for single-use plastic bags that took effect in January of 2012. The ban has certain exceptions for restaurants and other business types but it removes plastic bags from the checkout line at local grocery stores and pharmacies. Around the world, countries such as Taiwan, Bangladesh, Germany, Australia, India and Somalia have become largely plastic-bag free. San Francisco’s bag ban was found to reduce the number of plastic bags by 8 million per year.

Beyond banning the use of single-use plastic bags, putting a price on plastic bags at the checkout aisle has been proven to be an effective technique to reduce their use. A 20 cent tax on plastic bags in Ireland resulted in a 90-percent decrease in their use. Similarly, in Washington, D.C., a 5-cent tax reduced the number of bags handed out from 270 million to 55 million per year. In a combined ban/tax approach, the City of San Jose banned single-use plastic bags and put a 10 cent tax on paper bags, further incentivizing customers to bring reusable bags to the store.

Plastic bag bans and taxes have generated some interesting complaints on the behalf of citizens. In Ireland, for example, people complained heavily about the bag tax because they claimed they needed the bags to line their trash bins. After the tax went into place, the nation’s largest grocer reported a 77 percent increase in sales of trash can liners. In San Francisco’s case, citizens were upset about not having plastic bags with which to pick up their pet’s excrement. The bag ban forced citizens to purchase dog poop bags.  These are practical concerns, yet these inconveniences hardly justify not getting rid of plastic bags.  Further, this increased demand for garbage bin liners and dog poop bags could be met using compostable plastic bags.

Banning and taxing single-use plastic bags has been shown to dramatically reduce their use, yet many argue that such efforts are simultaneously worsening the environmental impacts caused by producing paper bags. There is truth to this argument, and indeed, the more important question is not Paper vs. Plastic but Single Use vs. Reusable. Solving our societal addiction to the convenience of single-use products is not going to be easy—it is going to take a large-scale cultural shift to make reusable tote bags the norm. Certainly bag bans and taxes encourage people to bring their own reusable bags, and in the San Francisco many local reusable bag-producing companies grew substantially when the single-use ban took effect. However, one major problem with eliminating single-use bags is that it is challenging for people to remember to bring their reusable tote bags to the store. There is massive potential for social innovation and design around this issue that will help us make this switch at a societal scale.


bag bin flier

A small-scale example can be found in a project I am working on with a team of Stanford students to promote the use of reusable bags on campus. The Stanford Bag Project, operating through the Stanford Coastal Society with support from the Associated Students of Stanford University and Center for Ocean Solutions, has distributed more than 900 reusable tote bags to the Stanford community. We have also made steps to combat the “I forgot my reusable bag” problem by placing communal bag sharing bins by the front doorways of nine campus residences. Students are free to grab tote bags from the bins on their way to the store and return them to the bin when they’re done. So far, we’ve gotten some positive feedback from students that the bins remind them to bring tote bags to the store. We’re experimenting with this and other approaches to making the Stanford campus single-use-bag free, and we hope what we learn can inform similar efforts on other campuses and communities around the world.



I find great hope when I see the combined grassroots-plus-government efforts to rid our world of single-use bags. It shows promise that one day, global society will behave in a way that allows our oceans and other natural systems to function uninhibited by our waste and activities. The material of your shopping bag may seem insignificant, but the simple choice to utilize reusable items will absolutely reduce humanity’s impact on the planet.

ETHAN ESTESS is a master's student in earth systems.


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