Oddly enough, there's actually a "correct" answer to this dilemma that hasn't been mentioned yet. (Don't worry: /me to the rescue!)

Besides the obvious answer (reusable, canvas shopping bags that are widely available for about $5 or $6 each), it's clear that paper bags are FAR superior to plastic bags when it comes to the environment.

Even though they both end up in trash dumps and both take forever and a day to biodegrade, one simple fact remains:

Paper is a renewable resource. Plastic is not.

Though we're certainly using more paper than we should (and recycling less than we should), it's still preferable to use a renewable resource than a nonrenewable one. Because while we can always plant more trees, our petroleum reserves are quite limited.

So, in short, take advantage of reusable, washable, hippie-friendly canvas bags when you can. (Buy a couple, throw them in the trunk of your car, and then you'll never be without.) But if you're in a pinch, paper is definitely the more-eco-friendly way to go when compared to plastic.

machfive points out: Some stores will give a 5 cent credit for each canvas bag you use. So if you fill up 5 bags with groceries every week, that's a quarter. At the end of the year, you've saved $13.00! Oh, and don't forget paper bags can be recycled as well. Throw your newpapers into them, and take them to a recycling center!

I heard an item on the BBC World Service the other day about various governments' actions against plastic bags. In Ireland, a 15 cent levy has been imposed per bag. The results are impressive: 90 percent drop in plastic bag use over the first few months. The alternatives are either to re-use sturdy plastic bags, use some other type of disposable bag which is biodegradable, or use a durable canvas (etc.) bag.

The BBC reported from a coastal village where the effects of bag use (hundreds a year per person before the levy) were very evident: piles of the things knee deep on the beach, ragged shards of bag stuck in trees (the saltily-nicknamed "witches' knickers"), etc. The problem was exacerbated by a local landfill which was being eroded by the sea.

There was a sad tale of the resemblance between a floating plastic bag and a jellyfish - at least in the eyes of certain species of turtle, who like to eat those particular marine organisms. Trying to eat a bag, they are suffocated to death, because it blocks their throats. Nice.

In Bangladesh (I think), plastic bags are banned. Judging from the report, the ban seems to be working well - the reporter roaming a shopping district could not find a single one. In that country, which is extremely prone to flooding, the bags had been blocking the sewers and making the problem worse.

It seems that, despite our excessive use of them, people can be persuaded to give up the bags quite easily - if shops do not act like drug pushers and stuff our shopping into them by default. But, of course, on the BBC, you cannot present a one-sided view of any topic. There must be an attempt at fairness and balance. So, a spokesman for the poor, beleaguered plastic bag industry was allowed the last word. He had some unconvincing lines about "not believing the spin and hype and looking at the facts", which he claimed he alone was in a position to deliver - as if he, an industry spokesman, wasn't himself spinning nineteen to the dozen.

He said that biodegradable disposable bags - paper or otherwise - violate the "first principle of sustainability", which is apparently that given the choice between making something that's going to fall apart and become waste and something that isn't, one should always go for the second. He also said that a plastic bag had the least environmental cost "over its lifetime" (as proved by "scientific study"). Both of these statements appear reasonable, but are bullshit when applied to plastic bags as used in the real world. The "first principle" only applies if the durability of the plastic bag is fully exploited. (Evidently, even durable plastic bags will fall apart and become waste one day.) And any study based on the assumption that the bag is used until it falls apart, will come up with a tiny environmental impact. Now remember the figure earlier - typical use in Ireland used to be HUNDREDS of bags per person per year. Any sane person with the intelligence of a five-year-old on up will now realise that both his points were utterly bogus: he was talking about a world where people use two or three plastic bags a month, always take their own bags to the shops, and never throw them away in inappropriate places.

What makes this corporate stooge's blatant attempt at misdirection so sickening is the fact that the bag makers get their profits from the hundreds of millions of bags that are used once or twice and then thrown away. He should have welcomed the Irish government's levy, since it has led to a pattern of bag use in line with his fairytale story of environmentally-sound plastic bags. Instead, he used doublethink to try to sell his product - "Use more plastic bags, they're more environmentally friendly because they last so long that you don't need to use so many of them!"

Update: I also find that Taiwan has banned plastic bags and containers (at least, for commercial packaging purposes) despite street protests by plastic manufacturers. Australia and Singapore are also considering action. In South Africa, where plastic bags are referred to as the national flower, bags of less than a certain thickness were banned, because the thinner bags are worse for reuse and recycling, and to discourage retailers from giving them away free. In all of these cases, the main reason for action was the accumulation of waste bags - along coasts, in trees, in waterways - which constituted a eyesore and environmental hazard. The problem with simply comparing energy costs is that it doesn't take into account the cost to society of having many millions of waste bags blowing around the country.

Chiisuta informs me that Germany levies a nickel (I suppose a few Euro-cents) charge per plastic bag used in supermarkets, which appears to be an effective deterrent.

In response to the renewable resource argument, I would like to add the following.

It's not always clearcut whether the product made out of renewable material is better with regards to environmental issues than the non-renewable material. Take plastic bags vs. paper bags.

Paper bags are heavier and bulkier than plastic bags. Therefore, to transport the same amount of bags, more trucks are needed for the paper bags. More trucks need more fuel.

You should also take into account the energy needed for producing the bags. I don't know which process uses up more energy: the transport of wood and production of paper, or the transport of oil and the production of plastic. It might very well be that the latter process actually uses less energy. Unless the production energy is solar or wind energy, this also means less fuel used.

The same thing goes for the recyclability: both paper and plastic can be recycled. For supermarket bags the composition of the plastic is simple and well-known, making recycling easy, recycling of paper is widespread already. The trouble here is not in the recycling process itself: to recycle, people need to return their bags, or the bags need to be collected from household waste streams. The recycling process also involves transport and energy, and in this case also, plastic need not be the worst option.

In the end, it might be possible that the plastic bags, in terms of resources, are actually the better choice. Plastic bags might save more petroleum than they use up. This is not taking into account the waste problem that ensues when people just throw them away, of course.
I would like to add that, whereas I don't know whether the above story is true for bags, it certainly is true for glass milk bottles vs. plastic ones.

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