The whole truth about plastic bags

Starting this Earth Day, the supermarket Whole Foods will no longer offer plastic bags. Ostensibly, the move will help "save the environment," but the alleged benefits of alternative paper bags over plastic are not clear. Plastic has many overlooked benefits – many of them environmental.

For Whole Foods, the switch to paper supposedly meets their customer demands for greener businesses. But why does Whole Foods need to remove the products entirely rather than continue to give consumers a choice at the checkout? Given the option, some of Whole Foods’ loyal customers might still chose plastic – and for good reasons.

Plastics are lightweight, durable, reusable, and easier to carry. For those "environmentally" conscious consumers who walk to the grocery, the durability plastic makes even more sense as plastics don’t fall apart easily – not even in the rain! Plastic is also much less likely to carry cockroaches into your home, which can be a problem with paper bags. Common to supermarkets, cockroaches feed on the glue in paper bags and easily can hide in the crevices of paper bag.

Then there is the issue of energy. Believe it or not, plastic bags are incredibly energy efficient. This very green attribute is probably the main reason they were winning in the marketplace to begin with – because lower energy costs mean lower costs for supermarkets and everyone else. Studies have shown that paper bags require as much as 40 times more energy to make and transport, which is reflected in their price.

It might be true that paper bags are more recyclable. However, that does not necessarily make them greener. For one thing, recycling doesn’t always save resources because it is easy to use more energy and water and produce more pollutants recycling a product than you save recycling. In any case, "recyclable" is not the same thing as "recycled." Many paper bags still end up in the landfill.

In any case, worrying about landfill space isn’t worth your time either. Landfill space is plentiful despite what claims have been made to the contrary. In the 1990s, greens said we would run out of landfill space in five years, professor Clark Wiseman of Gonzaga University pointed out that, given projected waste increases, we would still be able to fit the next 1,000 years of trash in a single landfill 120 feet deep, with 44-mile sides.

Wiseman’s point is clear: land disposal needs are small compared with the land available in the 3 million square miles of the contiguous United States. And while there has been some political wrangling over where to place landfills, enough are sited anyway. There is no landfill shortage.

But – you may still ask – isn’t paper better because it decomposes in landfill? Nope. Nothing really decomposes in a modern sanitary landfill because air and light are kept out. In a hundred years, we could probably mine the old waste if we needed it! Researchers at the University of Arizona showed back in the 1990s that landfills preserved the waste so well that they found perfectly intact 20-plus year old newspapers, hot dogs, and even lettuce!

What about the risks of chemicals leaking out of landfills? Doesn’t paper leach less dangerous substances than plastic bags? Nope. Since most things don’t decay much, there isn’t much leaching. In fact, the risk of landfills causing health problems is slim to none.

According to one study conducted by academic researchers Kenneth Clinton and Jennifer Chilton modern sanitary landfills pose a theoretical one in 10 billion risk of cancer for someone exposed to the chemicals for 70 years. This risk levels is so low is it unfathomable, especially when you compare it to the much higher risks associated with things we consider relatively safe every day life.

For example, smoking 1.4 cigarettes during one year, traveling 300 miles by car, traveling 10 miles on a bicycle, living two days in Boston, and eating 40 tablespoons of peanut butter over a year’s time all pose a theoretical risk of one in a million – making these relatively safe activities far more dangerous than depositing anything in a modern landfill.

It’s a free country, and Whole Foods can do what it wants. But that doesn’t mean all its shoppers will be happy or that the environment will be any better off.