Paper vs. Plastic Showdown
There’s a new sheriff in town—and plastic shopping bags are taking the heat. With Chicago the latest city to jump on the bandwagon of 160+ other U.S. cities (and potentially the whole of California) in outlawing plastic bags, it’s simple to assume that easy-to-recycle paper bags are the greener choice. But as the dust settles on the paper-plastic showdown, a closer look reveals the paper bag has its holes, too.
The key to understanding the good, bad, and eco-ugly of both options—and therefore making the best decision as a consumer—explains Northwestern University’s Eric Masanet, PhD, is to consider the impact of each part of the product’s life cycle from cradle to grave. “The science shows that moving from plastic to paper is not necessarily ‘greener,'” he says. Instead, it may simply shift the environmental impact from decreasing litter to increasing resource use and greenhouse gas emissions.
To really go green, he suggests committing to reusable bags, even if made from plastic. To understand why, let’s wrangle in the three main categories of impact in answering the once-inescapable checkout question, “Paper or plastic?”
How are you celebrating America Recycles Day? Our plan: to pay homage to the brilliance of recycling by, ahem, recycling some related content.
Here, a few EcoMyths blogs and articles on recycling for your eco-celebrations:
People ask us all the time about recycling. One of the most frequently asked questions we hear is “Do you need to rinse all containers before tossing them into the recycling bin”? We think that’s a great question and have often wondered that ourselves. To explore this issue, today on the EcoMyths segment on Worldview, Jerome McDonnell and I talked with engineering professor and researcher Eric Masanet, PhD, of Northwestern University.
No Shame in Not Knowing Rinsing Protocol
It’s time we had a little talk. Sometimes in life, we have dirty things we want to, ahem, recycle. This can mean we have to rinse containers before recycling them…except for when we don’t. Sound as clear as mud? It pretty much is, considering the need to rinse really depends on the recycling provider in your area.
Chicagoans, for example, are off the hook for rinsing, according to this handy guide. Denverites don’t need to rinse all containers—just roughly 30 percent of them, like milk, juice, yogurt, and peanut butter containers. Memphis does not require rinsing, but does recommend it for plastic bottles and steel cans. Meanwhile in San Francisco, “all materials should be rinsed prior to recycling.” Hmm…
—by Bob Fuller, M.S., Facilitator of 49th Ward Green Corps
As a child, whenever I stayed with my grandparents in rural Maine we would collect our garbage—seltzer bottles, coffee grounds, and mounds of Grammy’s cigarette butts being the primary ingredients—and every couple of days, Grampy would have me ride along to drop off our collection at the dump. I was happy to go, always hopeful this trip would be the one when I would find the discarded wheels to complete my homemade car, but relentlessly disappointed to find only piles of unrecognizable junk and rot.
Until recently, this type of trek was familiar to folks who wished to recycle in Rogers Park, a neighborhood on the far North Side of Chicago. For the majority of residents here, the best option to responsibly discard newspapers, bottles, cans, etcetera, was to trek to one of the neighborhood Department of Streets and Sanitation drop-off sites, either behind the police station or all the way across Ridge Avenue at Warren Park. The people who collected their recyclables and hauled them to recycle were the few and the dedicated.