The third choice

Debbie Schatzman
Living Green

On any given trip to the grocery store, consumers have to make a plethora of choices on cereals, soups, sodas, chips, cookies, produce, meat, cheese, toothpaste and soap, to name a few. After walking down every aisle and making dozens of selections, we have one more choice to make … paper or plastic. Some choose what is easier to carry, some choose what they have been choosing for years, some have done research and believe that plastic is better for the environment, while others think that paper is better. Now there is one more option … cloth. While the green Whole Foods cloth bags have been available for years, it is only within the last year that the Mercer Island Albertsons has been selling cloth grocery bags with their name and logo printed on them. This year, the sale of these bags has been steadily increasing, but the average is only 50 bags sold each week. In contrast, Albertsons uses 42,000 plastic and 10,500 paper bags each week.

Both paper and plastic bags consume large amounts of natural resources, and the majority eventually end up in landfills. Plastics do not biodegrade; they photodegrade, which means that they are broken down into smaller and smaller pieces by the sun and contaminate soil and waterways. Eventually, they enter the food web, in which animals accidentally ingest them. It can take up to 1,000 years for a high-density polyethylene plastic bag to break down in the environment.

Many stores, including the local Albertsons, have a 30-gallon recycling bin in the front of the store that shoppers use to recycle their plastic bags. They estimate that the container is filled and then emptied five times a day, amounting to 150 gallons of plastic bags daily. These bags are then sent to a company that recycles them into park benches, including those that sit in front of Albertsons. On the positive side, each bench re-uses 3,200 plastic bags that otherwise would end up in a landfill. According to John Gillespie, Albertsons’ store manager, Mercer Islanders bring in more plastic bags for recycling than in the other Albertsons where he has worked.

Some may argue, despite the recycling advantages of plastic, that paper is the way to go. The facts, however, don’t support this:

Paper bags generate 70 percent more air pollutants and 50 times more water pollutants than plastic.

2,000 plastic bags weigh 30 pounds, 2,000 paper bags weigh 280 pounds. The latter takes up a lot more landfill space.

It takes 91 percent less energy to recycle a pound of plastic than it takes to recycle a pound of paper. It takes more than four times the energy to manufacture a paper bag as it does to manufacture a plastic bag.

These are just some of the facts and a little bit about what a grocery store in our community is doing to help the environment.

The answer to the question, “Paper or plastic?”, should be “cloth”. It is the third and best choice. We pay less than a dollar for these bags, and most stores, including the Mercer Island Albertsons, will reduce your grocery bill by $.05 every time you use a cloth bag or if you re-use one of your own plastic or paper bags from home.

If you want to make a positive difference every time you go shopping, the easiest way is to save our environment one bag at a time. Keep a supply of cloth bags in your car and remember to take them with you when you grocery shop or even to the mall. It’s a great way to “go green” and join the growing number of people who have decided that they are not going to wait any longer to help save this amazing planet we all share.

Debbie Schatzman is a Green Living Consultant. She is working with the International Interior Design Association on the planning committee for Seattle’s GreenWorld 2008.

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