The Daily Southerner, Tarboro, NC

June 27, 2011

Paper or Plastic? Neither

FOR THE DAILY SOUTHERNER
Alice Jones Webb

PRINCEVILLE — Father’s Day weekend our family, like many families around here in the summer, made the trek to North Carolina’s Outer Banks. It wouldn’t be summer without at least a few days playing in salt water and soaking up some sunshine. Nothing says summer like the beach, and North Carolina has some of the fairest beaches on the Atlantic Coast.

Before hitting the sand, we made a quick stop at the local Kitty Hawk Wal-mart to stock up on beach necessities, i.e. bottled water, sunscreen and peanut-butter crackers. I was surprised when my small purchase was packed in a large paper sack. Everything at the Kitty Hawk Wal-mart is packed in paper bags. No one asks the customer’s preference with the clichéd question, “Paper or plastic?” because single-use plastic bags have been banned on North Carolina’s barrier islands.

The ban was passed by the North Carolina legislature in the summer of 2009.  According to the law, “Environmental degradation is especially burdensome in counties with barrier islands where sound side and ocean pollution are more significant, where removing refuse from such isolated places is more difficult and expensive, where such refuse deters tourism, and where the presence of a National Wildlife Refuge or National Seashore shows that the federal government places special value on protecting the natural environment in that vicinity.”

Perhaps I was so surprised because at our local Tarboro Wal-mart, I’m not certain paper bags are even an option. The flimsy cheap plastic bags are definitely over-used. It’s nothing to see a cashier mindlessly drop the ice cream into one bag, the bananas in another, while the jar of spaghetti sauce gets another bag all to itself.

And these bags are everywhere. They sit balled and stuffed inside the one that hangs from my laundry room door. They line my bathroom trash cans.  They carry picnic lunches. They hang from trees. They litter roadsides and farmers’ fields. They clog drainage grates. They float in the ocean. They stuff the bellies of North Carolina sea turtles. They even wash up on the shores of Antarctica (and I’m pretty sure Antarctica doesn’t host any local Wal-marts).

It is estimated that as many as 1 trillion plastic bags are used and discarded annually worldwide. That’s more than a million bags every minute.

The low weight and durability of plastic shopping bags, the characteristics that have made them so successful, are the reasons they are such a detriment to the environment. They are easily blown about grocery store parking lots, out of car windows and out into the environment. They float effortlessly along rivers and out into the ocean. Once there the bags can take up to 1,000 years to decompose. As they slowly decompose, plastic shopping bags break into tiny pieces and shed toxic chemicals into our soil, rivers and oceans.

But are paper bags a better option? Probably not.

According to the Film and Bag Federation, a trade group based in Washington D.C., the production of paper bags consumes more energy, generates more solid waste, produces more atmospheric emissions, and releases more water borne waste than their plastic counterparts. Further, a lot of trees give their lives to enable consumers to tote their groceries home in paper bags. Much of the tree harvesting is not done sustainably and can have devastating long term effects on local environments.  

And paper bags can cost the consumer four times as much as the plastic option, a serious concern in this time of rapidly rising food costs.

Just in case you’re wondering how on earth you’re going to get those groceries home without paper or plastic bags, there is a better option: reusable bags. Most chain stores offer affordable reusable totes for purchase, but any reusable bag will do. A generic canvas tote bag, large woven beach bag, old school bag or backpack will do the trick. Your reusable bags don’t have to be fancy or chic. They just need to be practical. But if fancy and chic is what you’re looking for, there are plenty of those options out there, too.  Just check out some of the original designer reusable bags at envirosax.com.

Utilizing reusable bags when you do your weekly shopping is just one small thing you can do to help keep North Carolina beaches and the wildlife there safe for future generations to enjoy. But don’t think for a minute that your reusable bags won’t have an impact right here in Tarboro and Edgecombe County. Our local fields, forests, and streams are just as valuable as the wildlife refuges that line our coasts. Our local water quality is equally as important as litter-free oceans. The back roads of our county are just as scenic as The Beach Road. Our children deserve to climb in trees whose branches aren’t tangled in billowing plastic debris.

Next time a cashier asks you, “paper or plastic?” answer with a resounding “Neither!”

The Nature of Tarboro by Alice Jones Webb is a monthly column about wildlife and environmental issues specific to Tarboro and Edgecombe County.