Nature's Secrets

The shoppers' choices: Paper, plastic or Prada?

January 6, 2013 

Meg Lowman is an N.C. State University professor and forest canopy expert who directs the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciencesa¬¢,aᬮ,a묢s Nature Research Center. Online:

Science… tells us that nothing in nature, not even the tiniest particle, can disappear without a trace.

Werner Von Braun

Probably the most oft-asked question of most Carolina shoppers is “Paper or plastic?” Every grocery customer is confronted with this choice, perhaps several times per week. Given this frequency, many citizens assume the environmental and economic impacts of these materials have been carefully researched. But this is not the case. When my students researched this topic for the state of Florida, they could not find any published, peer-reviewed scientific studies where decay rates of paper versus plastic in a regional landfill were experimentally compared. (This might be a worthy science fair project.)

An average American family of four uses approximately 1,500 plastic bags per year, requiring up to 1,000 years to decompose, according to the Worldwatch Institute. Though the technology of plastic bags has advanced, some scientific studies have shown that once-promising “degradable polyethylenes” do not really break down as quickly in nature as predicted. A whopping 88.5 billion bags are utilized annually in America, but less than 10 percent are recycled. Around the globe, a staggering 500 billion plastic bags are used per year, with the majority coming to rest in landfills or littered in ecosystems where they strangle wildlife. A large mass of plastic debris swirls in the Pacific Ocean; it’s estimated to be as large as Texas and is composed of plastic bits called “nurdles.” This plastic trash island causes marine wildlife mortality – and also releases harmful styrene compounds into the water.

However, paper bags also pose liabilities: They require the logging of 14 million trees annually, and require excessive fossil fuels to transport them. Rather than debate the merits of “paper versus plastic,” consumers should consider avoiding both. Cloth bags, including designer tote bags, are becoming the rage for all earth-friendly shoppers – to represent a personal ethic to tout logos, advertise causes or exemplify global stewardship. A new year’s resolution for a shopper’s stewardship campaign might be “Paper, plastic or Prada?”

Fashion designers are on the bandwagon. When British bag doyen Anya Hindmarch issued her first recyclable bag several years ago, buyers queued up at 2 a.m. to purchase one of her canvas totes, notably decorated with a message: “I’m not a plastic bag.” Other designers selling recyclable shopping bags include Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Prada and even Paul McCartney’s daughter, Stella.

In their effort to encourage recycling, some grocery stores offer credit for returning plastic bags or discounts for using cloth bags. Show your support for Mother Nature – use recycled tote bags when shopping. The debate is no longer about paper versus plastic, but about creating a new ethic for shopping with cloth!

Meg Lowman, an N.C. State University professor and forest canopy expert, directs the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences’ Nature Research Center. Online:

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