Reusable bags save carbon, money

By Michael Sikivie

The recent campaign to reduce food waste at Macalester reminded me of my idea to reduce the waste of paper and plastic bags that was never given a chance. At the entrance/exit of every dorm building there could be a few reusable canvas bags for students to borrow and a sheet to sign when they borrow it to indicate what bag they’re borrowing. That way no one would have an excuse for using paper or plastic, they couldn’t forget to bring a reusable bag because it’s right there when they walk out and they wouldn’t have to expend the time and energy needed to buy one. I proposed this idea to my RA in the fall and, sadly, he told me the community showed little interest. It’s remarkable how little attention has been paid to the environmental destruction wrought by both paper and plastic disposable bags given Macalester College’s reputation for activism,Americans use over 500,000,000,000 plastic bags and 10,000,000,000 paper grocery bags a year, and neither type of bag is biodegradable or widely recycled. A plastic bag takes 500-1,000 years to biodegrade under ideal conditions of oxygen and sunlight (not like in a landfill, where things at the bottom might never degrade). Current research shows that paper in today’s landfills doesn’t degrade any faster than plastic does. Although paper bags are slightly more likely to be recycled than plastic ones, 10-15% of paper bags are recycled versus only 1-3% of plastic bags, according to The Wall Street Journal. Paper bags take more than ten times as much energy to recycle as plastic ones.

The manufacture of paper bags involves a lot deforestation, pollution, and energy use. In 1994, 14,000,000 trees were cut to produce those 10,000,000,000 paper bags. The CO2 emissions involved in manufacturing the amount of plastic bags Britain uses in a year is equivalent to that of 288,000 cars, and I imagine the average American probably uses more plastic bags than the average British citizen, not to mention America having several times the population of Britain. However, considering the necessary deforestation in manufacturing a paper bag (a single tree saves 1,000 pounds of CO2) and the fact that it takes four times as much energy as the manufacture of a plastic bag, using paper is probably worse in terms of global warming. The manufacture of paper bags also involves millions of gallons of chemicals that end up in our waterways.

A uniquely bad thing about plastic bags is that they cause over 100,000 sea turtle and other marine mammal deaths every year because animals mistake them for food. Not to mention the fact that they’re especially unsightly. So on balance, paper and plastic are both equally horrible.

A reusable canvas bag costs as little as a few dollars and lasts at least a year. I imagine that those students not on the full meal plan must grocery shop a lot, so there’s a lot of solid waste we could cut back on. Macalester has a chance to take a substantive action and possibly lead a movement by example instead of simply protesting or preaching.

Michael Sikivie ’11 can be reached at [email protected]