Setting the Record Straight

May 18, 2008


Filed under: politics — straightrecord @ 3:07 am
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It’s Really Not a Toss-up

News Peg: China Adds To Effective Ban On Grocery Plastic Bags

      The confusion over whether it is better to ask for paper or plastic bags at the

grocery store stems from a failure by most people to complete the recycling circle. For recycling to occur, the entire circle must be completed.
     Separating something into a recycling bin does not mean you have recycled. You have only performed one of the many tasks that go into completing the circle of recycling.
     Similarly, if you do not consider the making of the product in the first place, you have not gathered enough information to make a decision about something such as whether paper is better than plastic.

The cycle of plastic:
     1. The plastic bags you receive in retail stores are made from the same crude oil that is refined into the gasoline you burn in your automobile or heating oil that keeps homes warm during cold weather.
     When the crude oil is refined, the stuff (dross) that is left by that process happens to be the highest-quality portion of the oil. But to become gasoline or heating oil, it would have to be refined again. Oil companies consider it more profitable to turn that dross into things such as plastic bags than to run it back through the refining process.
     If that dross were re-refined, it would add enough oil to the nation’s supply that the cost of a gallon of gasoline at the pump at today’s prices would be reduced by about 10 cents. (The first analyses of this issue, which set the cost at four cents a gallon, were performed when gasoline prices were less than a dollar a gallon.)
     Also, by receiving plastic instead of paper, you are at least encouraging further use of finite, not renewable, fossil fuels that also have a gotcha of contributing to carbon dioxide levels, all at a time we are supposed to be trying to become independent of foreign sources.
     The law of supply and demand being what it is, that means that driving up the demand for plastic by accepting it instead of paper at the store costs you an extra 10 cents a gallon for gas.

      2. After its contents are removed, a plastic bag usually is thrown away or saved for use as a container for discarding other material, mean- ing it ends up along with other garbage either disposed of in a landfill or burned or, as is too often the case, to be carried by the wind or water along with other trash.
      People often believe they are doing good and contributing to the environment by “recyling” the bags. They believe they have done so simply by putting the bags in a recycling bin, supposedly to be collected and made into something else. They have not.
      Despite two decades of research, no one has developed a cost-effective way to reuse those plastic bags (thus completing the recycling loop) even on a massive scale. Thus, today just about all plastic bags turned in for recycling are wasting away in warehouses waiting for a profitable solution, or, quite likely, they’ve already been dumped or burned.
      Plastic bags are not recycled.

The cycle of paper:
       Check the fine print on the bottom of a paper bag supplied by a retail store. Safeway’s says its bags include 40 percent recycled content. Most paper bags made today claim similar content.
       That means nearly half of that bag already has gone through a recycling process and that by demanding it instead of plastic, you not only are providing encouragement for continuing that initial process, you are encouraging repetitions of it.
       The 60 percent of the bag that has not already been recycled usually is made from shavings, sawdust and other detritus left over from processing wood into other products. There is a negative impact for asking for that bag, however—you are making it cheaper to produce those other wood products made from trees cut down for those purposes. On the other hand, trees are, in theory, renewable resources.
       Just as with plastic bags, paper bags can be put to use for other purposes—storing items, holding discarded newspapers until the bag and the papers can be recycled together, or reused to carry home the next set of groceries. In those cases, it is best to put one bag inside the other for extra strength.
       Eventually, a paper bag no longer can be used, but it can be recycled and usually is. That is the source of much of that 40 percent recycled content.
       Paper bags usually are recycled, often many times.

       All sorts of money and energy have been spent on life-cycle analyses trying to determine which is better, or put another way, less offensive. Arguments are made that the manufacturing process for making paper bags and later for recycling them consumes more extra energy than does the process for making plastic bags in the first place. But what if the plastic bags actually were recycled? The manufacturing process for paper still might be more energy-consuming than that of the paper bag, but the gap would be smaller.
       It would be nice if everyone could or would “go totally green,” but that is simply not realistic in today’s society. We all make choices, about which charity to support over another, and about which part of “going green” we find it convenient to support, based upon their own experiences or environmental concerns.
       Retail stores prefer plastic because it means they just have to tell the clerk not to put some products in with others, and don’t have to train them in how to load a paper bag. And plastic takes up less storage space at the store than paper.
       Most consumers prefer plastic because it is easier for them to han- dle in most cases.
       It’s nice that these life-cycle analyses have been done, and it would be nice if the environmental issues could be reduced to objective terms. But in today’s society, we have our individual lifestyles and will continue to look at things subjectviely. Given that, few of us are going to delve into the minute study of life-cycle costs, but we do understand what we are willing to do to help the environment.
       If one considers the entire recycling process for each, paper bags are clear winners over plastic ones.




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