Paper vs. plastic

What is the environmentally correct choice between paper and plastic grocery bags?

I’ll let you in on a little secret that separates us old oak treehuggers from baby saplings: The “correct” answer is canvas. A status symbol for the environmentally enlightened, the canvas grocery bag is sturdy (you can pack it to the brim without busting a handle), washable (spill your organic baby food on it, who cares?) and endlessly reusable (don’t quote me).

Now, don’t worry. We all forget to fold, roll and pack our canvas totes into our Timbuk2 messenger bags from time to time. In these rare instances, I choose paper. But it’s not a perfect solution.

It takes around 430,000 gallons of oil to produce 100 million standard plastic grocery bags (or about 232 bags per gallon), according to Jared Blumenfeld of the San Francisco Department of the Environment. But stats from the American Forest and Paper Association in 1999 suggest that an equal amount of paper bags kill 14,000 trees (about 714 bags per tree). It’s a wash. Or more of a dry, really, since that’s where my ad hoc Tree Hugger Coalition sees our natural resources headed if we don’t rely more on the canvas alternative. Um, where was I?

That’s right, the checkout line, where new evidence points to a clear winner in the case of paper vs. plastic. Choose plastic and you do one of two things: Send that single bag, filled with household trash, to a landfill, where it takes too long to biodegrade; or you decide to recycle that plastic bag. But the Sacramento Recycling & Transfer Station has to pack these bags into a (roughly) 3-square-foot bale of similar recyclable materials (in this case other plastic bags, too many to make plastic an efficient choice).

Paper bags, on the other hand, can be recycled easily in bales with newspaper, cardboard and other dead-tree variations.

In the end, I can’t tell you what to do. I can only offer my humble opinion: A canvas tote really complements your hybrid.