Paper or Plastic? Environmentalists say the correct answer is neither.
A group of Hanover High School students agree – and have asked New Hampshire lawmakers to pass a resolution that asks retailers to promote reusable bags instead.
Environmental problems from plastic bags have led some cities, states, and even other countries to ban or tax them.
New Hampshire Public Radio’s Amy Quinton reports.
(nat sound bags)
In a Senate hearing room, a group of Hanover high school students dump one-thousand plastic grocery bags in a pile on the floor.
The students who formed the group “Kids for a Cooler Planet” say the unsightly mess demonstrates how many plastic bags the average American family uses every year.
Junior Kyle Van Leer says New Hampshire consumers alone use an estimated 320 million plastic bags are annually …most end up in landfills.
1121 :13 In a landfill when trash degrades it releases methane gas and methane gas is 21 times more potent then carbon dioxide in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, and so when anything paper or plastic degrades, it releases methane gas into the environment.
Kids for a Cooler Planet has launched a campaign designed to get stores to promote reusable bags over paper or plastic.
They’ve asked both New Hampshire and Vermont legislatures to pass non-binding resolutions in support of their efforts.
Sophomore Brian Kispert says unlike plastic bag bans or taxes, the resolution calls for education and market incentives to encourage reusable bags.
“we don’t want a ban on plastic bags because people would be more inclined to use paper bags, which are actually worse in terms of air and water pollution”
According to the EPA, paper bags generate 70 percent more air pollutants, and 50 times more water pollutants than plastic.
They’re slow to degrade, take up more space in landfills, and require more energy to produce, transport, and recycle.
But petroleum-based plastic bags create their own environmental problems – they’re non biodegradable, made from non-renewable resources, and account for 60 to 80 percent of marine debris worldwide.
UNH environmental engineering researcher Jenna Jambeck says not only do thousands of plastic bags end up on New Hampshire’s beaches every year, but birds, fish and animals can become entangled and suffocate.
(the most documented impact of plastic bags has been to turtles because the plastic bags resemble prey and so the turtles ingest the bags and there’s numerous potential consequences as well as mortality that can occur because of the ingestion)
San Francisco has now banned plastic bags; dozens of other U-S cities are considering bans or taxes.
Bans are also in place in countries from Bangladesh to Zanzibar, and even China.
But Sharon Kneiss with the American Chemistry Council says there are unintended consequences from bans and taxes.
She points to Ireland, where a 22 cent tax on plastic bags has reduced consumption by 90-percent.
“As a result people used less plastic bags at the grocery store line. What they did do as a result was they increased their purchase of other types of plastic bags by 400-percent.”
Kneiss says most consumers reuse plastic bags, as liners for smaller trash bins, or to pick up after their pets.
The plastic bag industry is working to make recycling more accessible to consumers.. and Kneiss says recycling is increasing.
7:10 we believe that if there’s greater accessibility to recycling that those bags will be recycled become those very valuable materials, save energy, save greenhouse gas production, create less waste and be a good answer all around.
But even she admits the recycling rate is currently not high enough.
A 2005 EPA study found that only five percent of plastic bags in the municipal waste stream were recycled.
(nat sound grocery)
Grocery stores are the biggest users of plastic bags – they’re cheaper and more durable than paper.
Tony White, the operations director at the Food Coop stores in Hanover and Lebanon says he was blown away after calculating how many bags they go through.
1100 “it’s really crazy how much plastic bags we go through every day and paper bags, it’s a number of like eight to ten thousand every day in our two stores. Every day, it’s really kind of mind boggling”
So when Kids for A Cooler Planet asked him to promote reusable bags, White says it made economic sense, particularly with the costs of paper and plastic rising.
The students displayed the bags near the check out lines, along with flyers to educate customers about specific environmental benefits.
1099 1:32 we’ve been selling canvas bags forever, net bags, and we do okay with them, we might sell 20 or 30 a week, and all of a sudden we got five thousand bags in and in six days they were gone, five thousand bags in six days, it was amazing.
Last year, White says customers used or reused the bags 516-thousand times – 170 thousand more times than the previous year.
This year, White says the green bags may be reused a million times.
Since 1990, Hannaford supermarkets have sold reusable bags and offered customers a five cent rebate.
Environmental sustainability manager Megan Hellstedt says 10 to 15 percent of Hannaford customers now use the bags.
In 2007 alone Hannaford sold more than a half million reusable bags.
Hellstedt expects that number to grow this year through better promotion.
(we’re working on that, we’ve usually been very quiet about it, not for any particular reason but just that we’ve had other stuff to focus on but we’re working on a couple of things, promoting the bags more and doing a lot of giveaways.)
A shopper from Hooksett who didn’t want to be identified says she won’t likely buy a reusable bag anytime soon– but she does reuse the plastic ones.
“I don’t just heave them away I reuse them. Do you ever recycle them? No because they all go to kitty litter, we have six cats.”
And while reusable bag promotions may work for some consumers, getting people in the habit of bringing them to stores is the difficult part.
Shopper Leslie LaBlanc from Hopkinton was embarrassed when found with a cart full of plastic bags.
Lablanc “I have the recyclable ones, but they’re at home so I feel bad I’ve got this cart full of plastic bags. I bought the bags at Hannaford’s, the reusable ones, and I like them very much, but it’s getting in the habit for me I think, they’re at home left on the counter.
But Lablanc says even though she forgot the reusable bags, she’d be happy to see a ban on plastic bags.
New Hampshire’s Senate is scheduled to vote on the non binding resolution today.
For NHPR news, I’m Amy Quinton.