Paper or plastic?

By Sheila Pell

“Paper or plastic?”
When you hear those musical words, you know you’ve reached the end of the line.
That loaded question seems to carry more weight than all the polyethylene, paperboard, fiberboard, foam, metal, glassine, nylon, polyester, polypropylene, and vinyl-coated cans in your cart combined. It’s the ecoequivalent of  “butter or margarine?”
Nowadays, the checkout question is almost always rhetorical. Say “Paper, please,” and you’ve made the more difficult choice, at least in terms of the shopping experience. You’ve disrupted the flow of the bagger who’s already reaching for plastic. You’ve sent him or her all the way under the counter just to serve you.
With paper bags costing stores seven cents a piece compared to one cent for plastic, each transaction that ends in paper means someone somewhere down the line failed to convince a customer that plastic has the edge. Maybe it’s not all in your imagination, the disappointment that seems to  ruffle the bagger's face when you say “Paper,” making you feel like a child who just blurted out the wrong answer.
“Customers have become conditioned to take plastic,” says Mike Brennan, store manager at Foods of all Nations. While many of his store's shoppers are “die-hard” paperites, he doesn’t consider them typical. From the harried businessperson to the students who’d just rather not haggle with baggers, the answer to the burning question is clearly “plastic.”
In fact, since 1996, four out of five grocery bags used are plastic, according to “Great Moments in Plastic Bag History.” In some states (Oregon, at least) consumers can, by recycling law, demand paper. Of course, law or not, no customer-conscious store would refuse the request. They just make it easier to choose plastic.
How do they pull such a fast one on smart shoppers? One, they hide the paper: out of sight, out of mind. Two, they pop the question at random intervals. And three, they flaunt the readiness of plastic. It’s there for you.
If you aren’t asked, you get plastic. And when you do insist on paper, your entire purchase, regardless of size, will be crammed into one bag which will yank your arm from its socket as you hoist it. It’s hard to imagine, though, that plastic is anyone’s (except dog walkers’) preference, even the baggers themselves. The truth is, baggers don’t like those shape-shifting sacks. It’s so easy to forget that the baggers are just delivering the goods, so easy to see them as single-minded plastic-pushers.
According to the website, shoppers began facing the plastic-or-paper question decades ago. By 1977, plastic bags were threatening the moral fiber of paper– they were sexier and epitomized everything instant. Today, as landfills clog and forests fall, the choice is far less clear-cut. Ultimately, the green solution may be the most individual.
“I generally say whichever you’re going to reuse is the more environmentally friendly choice,” says Kerian Bicknell, store manager at Rebecca’s, a natural foods store where many customers bring their own cloth bags.
But these shoppers aren’t the majority, and for many environmentalists, the bag issue ranks behind more pressing pollution problems: the release of dioxins, for example, from sources like office materials. That issue, Brennan stresses, is more important. The making of white paper ranks among our dirtiest industries. While store bags have a limited number of useful lives from grocery store to landfill, dioxin is a poisonous time traveler that remains locked indefinitely in the food chain.
Still, there’s no refuting the environmental superiority of reusable cloth bags. Customers who accept their ration of paper or plastic in good faith find it’s not always easy reusing those materials.  Plastic bags may survive more than one incarnation around the house, but the most obvious role for these non-biodegradable land-fillers– as mini garbage receptacles– is a puzzler. Perfect (cheap) solution though it ought to be, the plastic grocery bag disintegrates with every attempt to line a kitty box. And stretched taut over the rim of household trash cans, they resemble doilies worn by oil drums. Paper bags, on the other hand, endure about eight (shapely) lives before their fibers are worn to a thread. Digestible in the landfill, they have greater commercial value and recyclable content. 
Of course, most grocery stores offer bins out front for their shoppers’ old plastic– even competitors’– bags, eliminating the need to rack your creative brain for unheard-of uses for that amorphous mass that seems to spring from every kitchen nook. Recycling bags seems to make good economic sense for grocery stores.
A store manager at Kroger who wished to remain anonymous offered this: all those bins of plastic bags, along with cardboard bales from food shipments, are trucked back to a giant compactor at a larger store facility. From there, the materials are sold to a plastics plant, and in their life cycle they come round again as objects at a Kroger check-out counter waiting to be chosen– “Okay then, plastic.” Without divulging particulars, the manager notes that the store “gets credited.”
Locally, do large chains give “credit” to shoppers who bring their own bags?
Kroger store manager Pennie Osborne: “I haven’t heard of anything like that.”
A customer service representative at Harris Teeter said that it hasn’t happened yet. “They’re looking at it for the future,” he said.
According to Ron Sexton, a manager at the Charlottesville Giant, however, customers there get a three-cent credit for each bag they bring– just as Starbucks reduces the tab when you tote your own coffee cup. Consider that if every American shopper takes even two or three fewer bags per month, hundreds of millions will be saved annually.
Maybe it’s time to consider trading in the store bags for the reusable cloth kind. Think of the forests and landfills spared, the change you could save… and all those grateful baggers.