Home > Plastic vs. Biodegradable Plastic vs. paper vs "bring your own"
I've done some research online with both envrionmental organizations and bag making companies and have found the following info. The bottom line is....its better to not use either plastic or paper and just dedicate some canvas or hemp bag to your shopping endeavors!
Paper bags cost 40% more energy and cause 70% more pollution to produce than plastic but they don't strangle wildlife and they breakdown faster in landfills than plastic. Not to mention the impact paper bags may have on our diminishing forests. Tho' paper bags, which I had here at the store a couple of years ago, are aesthetically more appealing they cost quite a bit more to purchase. Not so much per bag ($.25 vs. $.05) to buy, but the shipping cost on them is very high because of their weight and bulk. On the last order of them I placed, it cost just over $38 to ship $85 worth of bags which took up a lot of storage space because of their bulk and still only lasted the store about 2 months.
Because I don't have the storage space (I prefer to use it to keep well stocked in yarn), I began buying plastic bags at Staples just down the road. They're not as appealing and I never liked the idea that they are petroleum based, even if they are reused or recycled. So I looked into biodegradable bags made of starch and discovered they have pitfalls too.
First, there is a widely held feeling among environmentalists that biodegradable bags actually lead to increased littering. Afterall, if the bag will decompose in 3 months, won't some have the attitude that its OK to just throw it out the window? Apparently in Australia, where they've had quite a bit more experience with biodegradable bags than we have, quite a few turtles have died from swallowing biodegradable bags which were tossed as trash into the ocean. The turtles apparently mistake the bags for jellyfish (a foodsource for the big turtles) and then can choke on the bags.
Secondly, tho' starch-based biodegradable bags break down by 60% in 180 days , their decomposition have caused algae blooms which hurt marine life and as they degrade they leech chemical residues which can negatively impact soil conditions as well. Also, since they do not break down in sealed landfills they need to be handled differently by your waste management people to be of any benefit. Since most consumers don't know that, they are treated much like regular plastic bags and end up in landfills where they end up being no better than the non-biodegradable plastic.
Additive-based plastic bags that are photodegradable do break down in standard compost and landfills unlike the starch-based bios. However, they apparently often use heavy metals such as cadmium, lead and beryllium to produce and therefore also leech chemical residues into soil and can contaminate crops.
I'm sure there are lots more statistics out there and even more pros and cons than I identified in my exploration into the topic. The bottom line for me is that it's just best to bring your own bag. I've got several linen and hemp bags that I keep in the car for groceries and I'm going to add to that another for books, clothing etc.