Paper or Plastic?

I remember the days when stores were making the transition from the old style brown paper bags to the newfangled plastic ones--in the name of the environment.

There’s a backlash against the plastic bags that various merchants give shoppers to carry goods home with them. The District of Columbia has imposed a 5 cent fee per bag, which applies even to the to-go bags at sandwich shops. The EU is considering banning them altogether but is now looking at some sort of fee system, too.

The bags are ugly and environmentally unfriendly, although I do at least recycle many of mine for diaper disposal (which, of course, ensures they’ll never degrade) and other sundry uses. We’d be better off if more of us brought re-usable bags to the store.

What’s odd about all this, though, is that I remember the days when stores were making the transition from the old style brown paper bags to the newfangled plastic ones–in the name of the environment.

FILED UNDER: Environment,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Franklin says:

    My wife brings the heavy-duty re-usable bags. I guess I still sort of question whether a bag that probably weighs 100x or more than the thin ones is improving anything drastically. Does it last 100x as long? Does it use less than 100x the power to manufacture? I don’t know, I’m just asking.

    Regardless, I always forget the hefty ones if I head to the grocery store, but typically re-use them for similar purposes to James’. Dirty shoes in the gym bag, etc.

  2. Andy Gaboury says:

    I work at an environmental consulting firm as a researcher and the sheer volume of states, cities and countries with legislation related to banning plastic bags is overwhelming.

  3. @Franklin:

    Those grocery story plastic bags are also very convenient for dog owners.

  4. Jenos Idanian says:

    “Paper or plastic?” also applies when being asked how you intend to pay for your purchases…

  5. JKB says:

    Of course, the re-usable bags quickly become disease ridden as no one washes them. Really they should be laundered after each use, stored in a paper back sealed inside a plastic bag.

    But it’s okay, there is a drive for legislation to force 75% of all farms to be organic by 2025, after that, starvation sets in and being upset over paper or plastic will seem so silly

    Implement a $25 billion plan to transition to organic food and farming production, to make sure that 75 percent of U.S. farms are U.S.D.A. organic certified by 2025.

    Feed organic food to all children enrolled in public school lunch programs by the year 2020.

    Pass a Beginning Farmer and Rancher Bill to place a million new farmers on the land by 2020.

    Link conservation compliance with government-subsidized insurance programs and create a cutoff so each farm receives government funds for land only up to 1,000 acres.

    One hopes they don’t mean to force feed organic food to the children when they yearn for cheap, tasty food.

  6. KariQ says:

    One is inclined to believe that the “drive” for 75% organic farms is limited to a very small fringe group and will have no impact whatsoever.

  7. ernieyeball says:

    When the local Kroger gave you 2 cents credit for each cloth bag you brought with you I would bring all five of mine in and put a few items in each one to get a dime off my groceries.
    Well that must of broke them because they stopped the cash discount and issued a point toward a gasoline discount per reusable bag. That never worked for me because I never accumulated enough gas points for any discount. Not to worry. They stopped that too.
    The only reason I have been bringing my own sacks with me when I shop is because I like the handles on them. They are easier to carry. It doesn’t have any thing to do with being Green.
    I can see trying to cut back on the use of plastic bags now that gas here in Sleepytown is back up to $3.999/gal.
    But don’t paper bags grow on trees?

  8. I bought a neat little trash pail that has ears for those plastic bag handles. Handy.

  9. James Joyner says:

    @ernieyeball: I suspect that the % of Americans who would be motivated to change their behavior by the prospect of saving a dime is smaller than the % who would vote for Ron Paul as president.

  10. MarkedMan says:

    I don’t know how much it weighs into the environmental impact of the light weight, easily blown away, plastic bag, but I do know they are responsible for large numbers of deaths of animals and fish that eat them or ingest them while eating other things. They coat the stomach, limiting nutrient absorption, or get tangled in the intestines, leading to horrible deaths. So the switch to reusables has more of an impact than calculations of energy consumption might imply.

  11. WR says:

    @JKB: Because organic food tastes bad? I thought you were a “libertarian,” not a dittohead.

  12. WR says:

    @WR: Oh, sorry. I thought it was Doug who said that. JKB IS a dittohead…

  13. matt says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Very true. I also use the plastic bags to line the small trash cans I have around the house and in the bathroom.

  14. Racehorse says:

    The city that I live in requires all recycles: (plastic, cardboard, aluminum) to be in a plastic bag before it goes in the recycling can or box.