Tout Your Tote Bag

           On October 15, 2011, Portland’s plastic bag ban went into effect, banning the use of plastic bags in major grocers and retailers with pharmacies. While this ban is indeed a step in the right direction, paper bags are no better. That’s right. Most of us are used to hearing the question “paper or plastic” whenever we go shopping and we all expect “paper” to be the environmentally correct choice. Unfortunately, any product that is designed for one-time-use, whether paper or plastic is bound to wreak havoc to the environment.
          Paper bags leave a larger carbon footprint from production to recycling than plastic bags. It is true that plastic bags pose unique challenges to the environment. They get consumed by and tangled among animals, they clog storm drains and get in our waterways, but a quick look at the data and you will realize that if anything paper bags are the lesser of two evils. Paper bags require four times more energy to produce than plastic bags and in the process they generate 70 percent more air pollutants and 50 percent more water pollutants. One of the reasons that people opt for paper bags is that they are recyclable, but so are plastic bags. In fact, it takes nearly twice as much energy to recycle plastic than it does paper. To top it off, paper bags weigh more (about nine times as much) meaning that more energy is required to transport them and they take up more space in the landfill.

OK, so paper bags are not so great after all. Then why is all the attention on plastic bags? The answer is simple. Plastic bags are a visible sign of waste. They are an ugly staple of the urban environment. Paper bags are not so visible. We cannot see the damage caused to the ozone by paper bag production, but we can see a helpless bird caught in a plastic trap. But, there is good news. We do not have to choose between paper and plastic.  
Many of you have probably heard of the grocery tote bag. It is a bag designed to hold groceries, but it is durable and reusable. It is stronger than both paper and plastic bags and the strong handles make them easier to carry. How many tote bags you will need depend on how big your shopping sprees are. If we assume that you go on very large shopping sprees we can say for the sake of argument that you may need ten tote bans. In that case, all ten tote bags will cost you less than ten dollars. Since the average American uses 444 plastic bags each year you will also be saving 434 bags.
The key to using tote bags is to put them in a convenient place so you will remember them when you go shopping. If you drive, then the glove compartment or the trunk are good places. If you are a student, put them in your backpack. If you bike, put them in your seat pack. A common strategy is to  leave them hanging next to your front door so you see them before you leave the house. Better yet, leave a few in the house and a few in the car or bike in case you forget. Whatever your strategy, remember how much you are saving by bringing your own bag to shop. Next time you are asked “paper or plastic”, say NEITHER! 

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