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Paper, Plastic or Neither?

September 13, 2016
By Robert and Libby Strong and Richard Pollack - SMART Science , OVParent

School has started for the year, and many of us have been back-to-school shopping. Think of the supplies, new clothes (some of you grew a lot over the summer!), and other materials that were purchased to prepare for the start of the new school year.

Now think of all of the bags that were needed to carry your purchases to your car and into your home.

Even if you only needed four or five bags for your new gear, multiply that number by the number of students at your school. That is quite a number of bags, and that is just for one school!

Article Photos

Cadance Anderson says, 'Paper or plastic?' at the SMART Science Center in Wheeling.

More often than not at grocery stores, the cashier will ask "Paper or plastic?" Which would (or should) you choose and why?

The plastic in plastic bags is made from petroleum (the substance that oil and gasoline are made from), and this must be drilled from the ground. Plastic bags also disintegrate into many pieces as they get older and are exposed to sunlight. These small pieces and even the larger bags may harm wildlife if they get into the environment.

Paper bags are made from trees. Trees are a renewable resource (we can plant more), but it still requires a great deal of energy to make an actual paper bag. The energy also comes from (primarily) fossil fuels (a non-renewable resource) to produce the electricity needed in the paper bag factories. Most paper bags are bigger than plastic bags, so you can haul more stuff in them, but both types of bags still are mostly one-time, one-use items.

It is true that both paper and plastic bags can be recycled - but few people actually do recycle, and the energy needed to recycle any type of bag after only one use is huge.

So, what should we do? Can we reduce the number of bags we use? How about using reusable bags?

Here are a few suggestions:

1) Carry cloth bags or backpacks for items you bring to school and on outdoor adventures.

2) For shopping, it is more energy-wise to carry cloth or reusable bags for your purchases.

3) As a general rule, use a bag only when needed. If you purchase small or easy-to-carry items, you generally do not need a bag.

To "close the recycling loop," be sure to buy products made of recycled material. If you cannot find products made from recycled materials, please be sure to let your local store owners know that this is important to you.



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