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recent email on plastic vs. paper bags




From: Benjamin Smith@EDF on 02/18/99 05:14 PM

Subject:  recent email on plastic vs. paper bags

From: Richard Denison on 02/17/99 10:51 AM


To:   DOUGK@dec.anr.state.vt.us
cc:
Subject:  Your recent email on plastic vs. paper bags

In case you didn't know, the Council for Solid Waste Solutions, who
sponsored the study from which you quote statistics supporting plastic over
paper bags, was an early '90s incarnation of the American Plastics Council
-- a plastics industry trade association that obviously has a strong vested
financial interest in promoting plastic over paper.  The study you cite in
one of a host of "dueling" lifecycle inventories that were commissioned by
industry groups and (surprise!) always managed to come out supporting the
material made by the sponsoring entity.

While the issue you raise is a complex one, there are many hidden
assumptions and ciritcal caveats to some of the statistics you provided.
For example, most of the energy associated with the paper bag is derived
from burning wood-derived waste products, not fossil fuels.  And while the
weight of pollutants was found in this study to be less from plastic than
paper, the specific pollutants, their toxicity, their sources and modes of
release -- and hence their environment impact -- differ dramatically
between paper and plastic production processes, and pollutant weight is an
extremely poor means by which to compare two different materials.

Finally, you raise other considerations such as renewable/non-renewable
resources which are not typically addessed in lifecycle inventories.  These
issues also cut both ways -- for paper as well as plastic.  While paper is
often considered "renewable" because it is possible to replace a tree in a
relatively short time, it is far less clear whether -- given the means by
which many of the trees used to make paper are grown and replanted -- in
highly intensive plantations -- can be considered "renewable" for the
forest.  If a pine plantation replaces a forested wetland in the Carolina
Plain, while the biomass may have been renewed, the forest clearly has not
been -- with major consequences for biodiversity and habitat value.

Given all this complexity, my own view is that how an individual actually
uses and discards one bag vs. another is a greater determinant of overall
environmental impact than what the bag is made of.  Which applies to using
a reusable bag or refusing a bag in the first place as well.  I had a short
piece published in Good Housekeeping last year where I made this point.
What I wrote is shown below, taken from
http://homearts.com/gh/betterw/48expe11.htm

     We all want to do what's good for the
            environment ? so what's the best choice in the
            checkout line? We posed the question to
            Richard Denison, Ph.D., a senior scientist with
            the Environmental Defense Fund:

            "One type of bag isn't necessarily better than the
            other. Paper uses up trees, reducing forest
            biodiversity, and produces pollutants during the
            manufacturing process. Plastic consumes
            petroleum, which creates pollution and increases
            the risk of oil spills.

            "It's what you do with the bag that matters most.
            Simply using it twice (taking it back to the store
            for your next batch of groceries or lining a
            garbage container with it, for instance), reduces
            its impact on the environment by half. In
            addition, you should always recycle.

            "Having said that, the absolute best 'green thing'
            you can do is try to take canvas or other
            durable, reusable bags with you when you go to
            the supermarket."



Richard A. Denison, Ph.D.
Senior Scientist
Environmental Defense Fund and Alliance for Environmental Innovation
1875 Connecticut Avenue, NW   Suite 1016
Washington, DC  20009
Phone 202/387-3500
Fax 202/234-6049
email  richard@edf.org




      Richard A. Denison, Ph.D.
      Senior Scientist
      Environmental Defense Fund and Alliance for Environmental Innovation
      1875 Connecticut Avenue, NW   Suite 1016
      Washington, DC  20009
      Phone 202/387-3500
      Fax 202/234-6049
      email  richard@edf.org





      Benjamin Smith
      Outreach Coordinator
      Environmental Defense Fund's Pollution Prevention Alliance
      1875 Connecticut Ave., NW
      Washington, D.C.  20009
      202/387-3500 ext.  116
      202/234-6049 fax
      benjamin_smith@edf.org
      http://www.edf.org