Plastics make it possible… for us to smother ourselves?

Those who know me are aware that at my current place of employment, one of my tasks is writing and designing the newsletters that are emailed/faxed/printed every month/bimonth/quarter about goings-on in the environmental industry.  And those who know me even further are aware that I have things I choose to be incredibly anal and OCD-esque regarding.  For instance, while I choose to be anal towards the proper use of the word “whom” and other lame rules of grammar, I will probably never learn to correctly spell the word “definitely” on the first shot (yes, I typed it ‘definately’ there originally). *

One of things I’ve decided to embrace OCD with is doing the research for these newsletter articles.  The point that matters to me is namely that somebody reads these articles, and therefore I could potentially be the source of someone saying, “You know, I read somewhere that…” See that?? “Somewhere” could be within my reach of manipulation!  LOOK AT MY POWER!!!  Therefore, in my mind that means I better make sure this shit is as accurate as possible.

Fast forward to me doing a sidebar on why you should email us so that we can GIVE YOU FREE SHIT WITH OUR LOGO ON IT SO YOU REMEMBER TO USE OUR COMPANY. Specifically, this month, we’d like to give you reusable grocery bags, which is pretty bad assed and exciting. Instead of doing a lame article on how Maui has banned plastic bags in 2010 again, I decided I’d throw some paper v. plastic stats in there, since clients seem to enjoy clicking in to studies and stats like that.

And after spending far more hours on this than I should have, I have discovered this:  We’re going to fucking smother ourselves in garbage.

I mean, I figured that both paper and plastic bags are pretty wasteful, and – no surprise – they are.  But what’s shocking is just how insanely wasteful they are, and how we are burying ourselves in garbage.

The amount of energy it takes to create one bag (higher for paper), much less RECYCLE the bags (again, much higher required for paper) is already jaw dropping when you multiple it by the billions of bags used every. single. day.  Plus, the EPA estimates only 5% of plastic bags and 12% of paper bags were recycled in 2005.  Newspaper is recycled in the US an estimated 80% of the time.

Top that depressing news off with the fact the plastics can usually only be recycled into a lower grade plastic; therefore plastic bags, which are normally made of #1 and #2 plastics can only be recycled (“downcycled”) into plastics of lower grade than itself.  And this can usually only happen once.  My limited science readability tells me that this is because the bonds in plastic break while being recycled and cannot be reformed in the same way again. Yes, it’s way more complicated than that, but I refuse to attempt to exposit any further for fear of looking like a complete ass regurgitating sciencey knowledge.

Oh, and if biodegradable plastics accidentally get mixed in, the recycled plastic product is way less valuable. Plus regulations on food/soda/water bottles and containers are that they must be made of virgin resin materials, so nothing that ever touches food is going to be made from recycled materials.

So, therefore if

plastic bags : bad :: paper must : good,


Well, actually, paper bags are arguably worse.  Not only, as reported before, does creating and recycling paper bags require significant amounts of energy to produce due to its materials and thickness,but they also require thousands of gallons more over plastic bags, and strip the land of natural resources in order to make sturdy, high-quality paper.  But the one good thing paper bags really have going for them is their reputation as ‘natural’ products that will decompose significantly faster than plastics in landfills.  So that’s gotta be something, right?

Mais, au contraire.

There are several studies and reports, including one study quoted by the EPA, which state that paper bags, due both to their thickness as well as the lack of light, air, and moisture in landfills, won’t actually decompose any faster than plastic bags in landfills.  Now, I take this knowing the study quoted here was commissioned by the french equivalent of Walmart (Carrefour), so they have a vested interest in finding plastic bags, which are cheap to buy/produce/transport, as the environmental winner, but their full conclusion was more along the lines of “Nothing Ever Goes Away; We’re Royally Fucked.” (Okay, maybe I read between the lines of the conclusion.)

On top of that all, if you compost paper bags (which I have done), apparently it releases twice the amount of CO2 into the atmosphere as non-composting paper does.

But flipside the issues again and there’s the negative greenhouse issues of burning plastic bags. And the fact that plastics in landfills, no matter how much water, light, and air given, will never biodegrade completely, because small fibers always remain.

And then you just think of the fact that 95% of this shit just goes here anyways:

Massive Garbage Dumps That Go On Forever

Massive Garbage Dumps That Go On Forever

And then you realize that even if we stopped using plastic completely TODAY (which, for multifaceted and obvious legal, political and economic reasons, could never happen), this still wouldn’t go away for thousands and thousands of years.  And yet, we continue to consume upwards of 500,000,000,000 plastic bags Each. Effing. Year.

Sometimes researching shit like blows my mind and completely overwhelms me on its vastness scale.  Also because I don’t know if we’ll ever be ready as a global society to change our habits unilaterally fast enough to actually make a difference.

Le sigh, for the world.

* Fun sidenote: While I adore grammar, I am somewhat of a terrible speller.  I’ve improved greatly over the years, and I spell basic words properly most of the time (angry face to those who spell your/you’re either a) incorrectly, or b) ubiquitously as “ur”), even if I have to constantly pause and think “I before E, except after C….”  Despite this, in 4th grade, while I scored in the 99th percentile for all of my other standardized CAT** tests… er, in spelling? I scored in the 74th. Oops?

** Other fun sidenote: CAT = California Acheivement Test.  Where did I grow up?  Illinois.  Yeah. Riddle me stumped.


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