Trash talk

Before you toss that item, make sure it’s not recyclable.

Before you toss that item, make sure it’s not recyclable.

Are plastic garbage bags for the kitchen better or worse for the environment than grocery-store plastic bags? Also, are paper bags the best bags to put kitchen garbage in?

Any strategic Treehugger in your situation would ask him or herself, “What would San Francisco do?”

To answer your first question: Neither. The city banned non-biodegradable plastic bags from its grocery stores in March. It takes 430,000 gallons of oil to make 100 million bags, according to Jared Blumenfeld, director of the San Francisco Department of the Environment. And polite estimates say it takes 10 to 20 years for a plastic bag to biodegrade, while a paper bag takes 2 to 5 months. Neither is a perfect solution, but paper is clearly preferable when you can get away with it.

(To address the myth that landfill decomposition is a slow-to-non-existent process, Patrick Quinn, planning program manager for the Waste Management and Recycling Department of Sacramento County, said that when landfills decompose, “They generate methane. At Kiefer Landfill, we extract the gas and we make electricity with it so we know the stuff’s decomposing.")

I know, I know. Some trash is wet and will cause the bottom of your paper bag to burst all over your brand new organic linen pants. But before you reach for the plastic, note my disclaimer that almost everything you might throw away is actually recyclable. Visit to see a complete list of electronic waste recyclables, regular recyclables and composting instructions (yes, a lot of that wet, bag-bursting food waste can undergo reincarnation).

Biodegradable plastic bags, with their partial cornstarch composition ripe for a microorganism’s lunch, sound great in theory. But Quinn notes that unless the bag is made of 100 percent cornstarch, the bag will “break into small pieces, but the plastic is still there.”

So just embrace the moments when “paper or plastic” is not a decision you have to make—when the loaf of bread you purchase at the market is wrapped in a plastic bag, or when you’re making a last-minute American Apparel run and can’t fit all those sweatshop-free clothes into your tiny purse. For better or worse, there are always moments in life when, without even asking, you get served (a plastic bag).