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Paper or plastic?


Does the title of this article sound familiar? Paper or plastic is a choice most of us make almost daily. The question arises explicitly at the supermarket checkout, but by the time we arrive there, we've already made the same or similar choices throughout the store.

What "Paper or plastic?" really boils down to is, "Degradable ... or something that's going to stick around for a while?" Which do you choose, and why?

Based on the number of plastic versus paper bags ordered and used by the major supermarket chains across the country, chances are slightly better that you leave the grocery store carrying plastic bags.

Brian Dowling, public affairs manager of Safeway Stores, a major grocery chain with 1,100 of its 1,260 stores located in the western U.S., gives a ballpark estimate that seven out of 10 Safeway customers opt for plastic. Similarly, Mark Roeder, public affairs coordinator for Giant, a major regional chain, estimates that at 147 Giant stores in Maryland, northern Virginia, and Washington, DC, six out of 10 patrons choose plastic. Both estimates are based on the number of bags given out.

At Acme, a major chain in the Northeast, Walt Rubel calls the customer's choice "overwhelmingly plastic." When plastic bags were introduced at the 250-plus Acme stores three years ago, much resistance was encountered on the part of customers. Since then, the noise in favor of keeping them is "10 times more deafening" than was that initial resistance, he states.

On the surface, these percentages seem to imply that plastic is more than "slightly" preferred. But one of the advantages of the 107-year-old paper sack - that it holds more items than its plastic competitor - means that shoppers who ask for paper leave the store with fewer bags. For that reason, the ratio of shoppers choosing plastic over paper is somewhat lower than the 7:3 and 6:4 ratios for the total number of bags given out by the Safeway and Giant chains.

Whatever edge plastic may or may not have, no one disputes the fact that plastic bags have gained in popularity since their supermarket debut in the early 1980s. At that time, plastic garnered only 3 percent of the market. By the mid-1980s, the numbers had risen only slightly, with 10 to 12 percent of the shoppers choosing plastic.

So what happened in the latter part of the decade to change people's minds? Retailers and plastic manufacturers say that customers inherently resist change and that it took a few years for Americans to break with tradition and accept the plastic grocery bag. Plastic caught on most readily in urban areas, where the handles make the bags easier to carry home on the bus and subway.

The fact that plastic resists moisture, both from its contents and from exposure to the weather, also helped win people over. Some claim that plastic bags are more reusable - everything from trash to wet bathing suits to Granny's knitting winds up in them. Some shoppers even choose plastic in order to "save trees," not stopping to think that trees are a renewable resource whereas the petroleum or natural gas used to manufacture plastic is not.

Retailers prefer plastic bags for different reasons. At present, paper sacks cost about 2 1/2 times more than plastic. This may fluctuate depending on the relative costs of petroleum and pulpwood, but with plastic being six to eight times as compact as paper, plastic will always win out when it comes to comparing transportation and storage expenses for the two kinds of bags.

The cost factor, combined with greater design flexibility and improved strength, have made plastic look so attractive to retailers that most supermarkets have remodeled their checkout aisles to include plastic bag holders, which make packing a plastic bag much easier than it used to be.

The irony is that before the checkouts were changed, a study commissioned in 1984 by the American Paper Institute (API), a trade association for paper manufacturers, showed that when the entire bagging process is considered, paper bags are 3 to 10 percent less costly than plastic.

The study was conducted by Case and Company, an independent international consulting firm specializing in analyses of supermarket operations. According to the study, the savings in quicker packing of paper bags - labor costs are the largest expense incurred in a store's bagging operation - and the need for fewer bags more than offset the higher costs of purchasing and delivering paper bags.

API's Manager of Kraft Paper and Packaging, David Stuck, notes that recent changes in the design of checkout lines dilute the findings of the 1984 study. He adds that API is thinking about initiating a followup study.

Perhaps the biggest impact of the remodeling of the checkout line is that it has swayed more and more shoppers to "give in" to plastic. More than one supermarket chain spokesman admits that his chain's cashiers are trained to use plastic if the customer does not specify otherwise.

Mobil Chemical Co., a leading plastic-bag manufacturer, promoted its Marketote[TM] bag and checkout system as early as 1981. In promotional material intended for retailers and supermarket employees, Mobil expressly instructs cashiers to avoid offering paper and to "push" plastic so that the "conversion will be quicker."

Those on the other side of the fence argue that the advantages of paper sacks stack up like this: Besides the greater holding capacity, which means fewer trips to the car, paper bags don't collapse on the seat or on the kitchen table, they don't hurt hands or encourage poor posture when being carried, and they are 100 percent biodegradable and recyclable. The paper bag is also reusable, having covered school books and toted trash for years.

But no matter how much we reuse or recycle paper and plastic bags, both eventually wind up in landfills. With landfill space becoming ever more limited, a comparison of the degradation rates - the time that it takes paper and plastic to break down in the landfill - is appropriate. To find out, let's trace a paper and a plastic bag from source to landfill.

One six-inch-diameter tree (the size of most pulpwood commonly used to produce paper) yields about 200 paper sacks at your supermarket. If you choose paper, you can calculate how many pulpwood-size trees your paper "habit" uses each year: Multiply the average number of bags you come home with each week by 52 and then divide the answer by 200.

If you use your paper bags to tote trash, or however they end up reaching the landfill, they decompose in three months or less, according to the API. If buried under mountains of trash where they are exposed to microorganisms, they decompose faster than if exposed to sunlight.

Plastic is made of polyethylene, a derivative of petroleum or, during oil crunches, natural gas, according to Dick Paplinsky, vice president of sales at American Western Corporation, a leading manufacturer of plastic products including bags. Since no standards have been established for the degradability of polyethylene, decomposition rates vary but always involve a "long, long time," Paplinsky admits. The answers I came across in terms of the time frames for a plastic bag to fully decompose range from as short as one year to as long as 240 years.

Complete incineration of plastic bags is possible, some claim, but the substances given off include carbon dioxide, which is a major culprit in the much-publicized greenhouse effect and global warming.

Most supermarkets today use a plastic that is at least partly degradable - either photodegradable or biodegradable. But controversy exists as to whether these advances help solve the problem or make it worse. Photodegradable plastic will degrade only in the presence of sunlight, but in most cases the bags end up buried in a landfill. Being photodegradable does make sense for those bags that wind up as litter along our highways. But the possibility exists that increased litter could be the actual result if people perceive that degradable plastic will magically disappear.

The theory behind biodegradable plastics is that they decompose in landfills because of the presence of fungi, bacteria, and moisture. But according to American Western Corporation, decomposition does not occur rapidly in landfills, due to the scarcity of enzymes that would catalyze the process.

American Western recently came out with a position statement. "There is a general misconception that being degradable is synonymous with being beneficial to the environment," the statement reads. Claiming that biodegradability is an unproven concept, the statement continues, "Biodegradability may have application in certain areas, such as municipal composting." The statement concludes by noting that unanswered questions "prevent us, as a company, from enthusiastically endorsing biodegradable products."

And then there's the question of what degradable bags degrade into. Many environmentalists, including John Ruston, an economics analyst with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), believe that degradable plastics degrade into dust, which is undeniably still plastic. American Western's Dick Paplinsky says there are no definite answers at present regarding what happens to this dust - in the air or in the landfill - but one fear is that it may leak into groundwater supplies.

Degradable plastics are also seen as contaminants when it comes to recycling. Experts say that when the degradable version is mixed with regular plastic, it can pollute the plastic resin, which is the substance that is recycled.

The "unanswered questions" that American Western speaks of have led most supermarkets to downplay their use of degradable plastic. Acme's Walt Rubel told AMERICAN FORESTS that although part of the plastic in its bags is a degradable cornstarch, "we will not tell our customers that the bags are degradable." Mark Roeder says that Giant's photodegradable bags "may take 60 or 80 years to break down." He adds that Giant does not label the bags degradable" because we don't think that doing so is right."

Labels are turning up, though, if not on the bags, then on some of the items that go in the bag. Industry is cashing in on the renewed environmental interest heightened by disasters such as the Alaska oil spill, tropical deforestation, and, closer to home, shrinking landfill space and closed beaches. Companies are offering everything from recycled toilet paper to re-refined motor oil to biodegradable disposable diapers.

The choices we must make in the supermarket aisles are making the paper or plastic bag issue seem simple in comparison. A recent article in USA Today states that American industry is just gearing up a marketing campaign that is "poised to lunge after baby boomers reawakened to ecology issues of the 1970s." The author adds that "the '90s will make the '70s look as wimpy as a Bee Gees concert."

Some long strides were made in the 1970s, including a 60 percent decline in the aerosol market made possible by consumers concerned about ozone depletion. Some conservationists say that the plastic bag, for all its convenient advantages, could go through that kind of change in the 1990s. A few stores, including Grade A stores in Connecticut and Big Bear stores on the West Coast, have already made the switch back to paper as their primary bagging choice - all in the name of ecology. In an advertisement announcing the switch, Grade A notes that paper bags cost more but declares that the stores' customers are worth it.

But let's get back to the supermarket aisles: How are consumers to know which products are good for the environment and which represent a mere ploy to make the customer feel good about paying more? The sad answer is that at this point there are few sure bets. American Western's position paper maintains that there is "no accepted definition" of "what constitutes a biodegradable plastic bag," and that goes for biodegradable products in general.

John Ruston at EDF states that it is irresponsible for anyone to promote degradable products as environmentally safe. Until more research is done and standards are set, he says, it might be wise for the environmentally minded shopper to investigate products labeled "degradable" before buying.

"Recycled" seems to be a better bet. Certain plastic items such as trash bags end up too dirty to recycle, but others such as milk jugs and soft-drink bottles can be washed and reground. Paplinsky sees the higher costs resulting from slowing down the production process as the major obstacle to plastic recycling. "It can be done," he says, "but it takes a great deal of imagination" to make plastic recycling competitive.

Nationwide, approximately 20 percent of plastic drink containers are recycled - mostly in states with bottle-deposit laws. Less than 2 percent of other plastic products make it to a second go-around.

A phenomenon that puzzled plastic-bag manufacturers in the early 1980s was the readiness with which Europeans and other foreigners accepted the new plastic bag, while Americans were much slower to jump on the bandwagon. What the manufacturers neglected to consider was that in Europe, for example, especially during the oil crunch of the late 1970s, bags were not provided free to the customer. The shopper would buy a plastic bag and use it over and over again.

And if Europe has been one step ahead in the past, it's interesting to note that Italy has passed legislation that will ban plastic packaging, beginning this year.

Environmentalists say that other societies often remind us that there are different ways - sometimes less wasteful ways - of doing things. Americans must realize, they say, that a checkout aisle set up for plastic does not eliminate the option of choosing paper.

Those who would feel silly carrying along their own plastic or cloth bags when they go shopping would probably admit that the marketers of plastic bags have done a thorough job. The advantages of plastic are well-known, and we can expect that plastic bags will be with us in the checkout aisle - and in landfills and along roads - for a "long, long time." AF

PHOTO : A few stores in Connecticut and on the West Coast have switched back to paperbags as their primary choice.
COPYRIGHT 1990 American Forests
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related information; bags for groceries
Author:Boerner, Deborah
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jan 1, 1990
Previous Article:In Hugo's wake.
Next Article:50th birthday of big trees.

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