PAPER OR PLASTIC
by Nancy Thompson
For most of my adult life, I have been a little ecology minded. Over the years I have washed, smashed and collected aluminum cans, plastic bottles, and glass and I have stacked newspapers and magazines into the appropriate green (or yellow) containers to be collected and taken to the appropriate site. From time to time, I have tried “green” products such as formerly used paper and plastic and wore sandals made from old tire tread. I even have some canvas grocery bags stored away somewhere at home.
Since moving to a small Iowa town where recycling is not overly enforced, I have not given it much thought, other than gardening organically and composting for the sake of the earth. So, when I heard the clerk at Baker’s ask each person as they checked their groceries in the 24 items or less checkout line if they wanted paper or plastic, my mind moved once again to ecology.
During the 1970’s, it was decided the earth was cooling and another ice age loomed in our future. There would be starvation, disease, and death. The world would soon be over populated, and it was important to have small families or perhaps none at all. Our future just might depend on recycling. It was during this time that Foster City, California, was built upon what had formerly been a huge garbage dump. What had once been rotting piles of trash was now a landfill.
In the 1980’s, many supermarkets switched from using paper to plastic bags because polyethylene was less expensive. When customers complained, they were given a choice between the two. Some shoppers would choose paper assuming it was an environmentally safer alternative. It was during this time that I purchased the three canvas bags packed away in my house somewhere.
When comparing the two types of bags, Franklin Associates (Brower, 1999, 132-133) found that manufacturing plastic bags produced less air pollution, water born and solid industrial waste than when manufacturing paper bags. Plastic bags are also lighter, producing less solid post-consumer waste therefore taking up less space in landfills.
Plastic bags are also reused more often than paper. Around the house I have used them as trash liners, stored shoes and other off-season and unused items. I have even taken bundles of extra bags to the food bank to fill with food to give to the needy and starving people.
As the line moved slowly forward, I went through this mental checklist. I remembered the towering piles of refuse we saw along the road on our trip to Florida two years ago. Strips of colored plastic bags were billowing in the trees and across the road, and plastic bags were plastered against the chain-link fences along the road. I also thought of the mountain of garbage between Marion and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, known by the locals as “Mount Trashmore.”
The new religion and political movement today is global warming. The planet is once again doomed if we do not do something. In order to do my part, my decision could be more environmentally sound, more earth friendly, perhaps “greener” if I chose plastic today and looked for the canvas bags at home to use in the future.
It was now my turn and I started to speak but my husband, Tim, spoke first. He had a little smile on his face and I heard the laughter in his voice as he answered the clerk, “Paper or plastic will be fine. It doesn’t matter, we’re bisacktual.”