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The Paper Vs. Plastic Bag Fight: Does Canvas Win?

A look at the good and bad of three common carrying vessels

Cities across the Bay Area including Campbell are considering or have approved some version of a . In some cases paper bags get lumped into the ban with a push toward getting consumers to use reusable canvas bags.

Supporters and opponents in each industry—plastics, paper or forestry, and canvas—defend their products, and perhaps the loudest defender of its products is the plastics industry. It is sweeping the nation descending on cities struggling in the decision of whether to ban single-use plastic bags.

The plastics industry has a lot of money backing it, said Patrick Rita, a spokesman for American Forest and Paper Association, and says be wary of reports such as the Boustead study which finds plastic superior to paper—the study was paid for by the plastics industry.

The paper industry isn’t flush with money like that he said, which means the plastics groups will be heard from more often and with more finger-pointing at other products vying for the same space.

San Mateo County is the lead agency preparing a draft Environmental Impact Report on a single-use bag ban that 24 cities including six Santa Clara County cities— Campbell, Milpitas, Los Altos, Los Gatos, Cupertino and Mountain View—are considering.

Cities with bag bans in effect are already closing in on Campbell.  went into effect Jan. 1, and Sunnyvale’s ban starts June 20.

What’s behind the bans is the requirement by San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board to reduce the amount of trash that finds its way into creeks and the bay. Cities must reduce their trash loads from the municipal storm drain system by 40 percent by 2014, 70 percent by 2017 and 100 percent by 2022. One way to do that is to ban the plastic bag.

Plastic bag supporters—those who say they use them multiple times for things such as picking up dog poop or lining their trash can—and those in the plastics industry come out swinging when cities threaten to take away their bags.

Industry folks charge that paper bags use up more natural resources than do plastic. They also claim the giant swath of plastic swirling in the ocean is filled with other plastic products, not just bags.

“No industry supports anybody littering. That said when we look at the data, what is caught in the marine environment is not plastic bags. Most studies are showing plastic bags are one to two percent of the litter,” said Phil Rozenski, director of marketing and sustainability for Hilex Poly. “The public isn't getting the full story of what's causing that. What we need to focus on is how to recycle bags to reduce litter.”

Part of the problem is not all plastics are recycled and wind up in landfills where they don’t break down. People can reuse plastic bags in the same manner as a canvas bag but it can’t compete against canvas in the reuse department.

“Really you need to use a (plastic) bag more than 100 times to have an impact of a reusable bag, said Kirsten James, water quality director at Heal the Bay. “Hopefully you're using (canvas bags) more than 100 times.”

The paper bag industry argues that its products are made from natural resources and decompose in the environment—meaning you won’t find them swimming in the ocean. And recycling or repurposing them for things such as filling them with mulch or other compostables makes paper even more environmentally friendly.

Paper is recycled at a rate of 40 percent higher than is plastic, according to the paper association, and they contain a recycled content between 40 and 100 percent.

On the flip side, paper bags aren’t necessarily manufactured in the U.S., something that Rozenski says is just the opposite for plastic.

About 90 percent of plastic bags used in the U.S. are made here, Rozenski said, adding that means there are also jobs involved. There are about 1,300 employees at Hilex Poly, which is a plastics manufacturer that is leading the Bag the Ban fight against cities and municipalities that are trying to restrict plastic bag use.

Another point of contention is what plastic bags are made from, but Rozenski said plastic bags made in the states are largely made from natural gas, not petroleum.

The swipe the plastics industry takes against canvas or other reusable bags is they are not made in the U.S. and many are loaded with toxic substances.

But a San Jose woman researched canvas bags when she decided to launch a business, SanJoseStock.com, to showcase her photography and promote the city of San Jose in the process and found that wasn’t true in all cases.

At the time San Jose was considering banning plastic bags so Kymberli Brady decided to capitalize on that by putting her photos of San Jose on canvas bags and sell them.

“We have no souvenirs. There’s nothing that screams San Jose,” Brady said.

But she didn’t want to settle for just any ol’ canvas bag, she wanted one that met her environmental standards.

And she found one.

The bags she uses are made from 100 percent green products, she said. They use vegetable ink, post-consumer recycled materials, and are 100 percent biodegradable.

She also looked into the company’s manufacturing and delivery process to ensure the overall carbon footprint wasn’t going to be more of a environmental gouge than another type of bag or process. The result is a bag and design that can be transferred to other cities, organizations and businesses who want to put their own images on a reusable bag—something that would make Brady very happy.

“We’re making green sexy one city at a time. You don't need to carry around a bag with a bank imprint on it,” she said.

Brady’s type of green, reusable bag is preferred by groups such as Heal the Bay, the organization behind the wildly popular mockumentary “The Majestic Plastic Bag.”

Heal the Bay’s focus is on marine health and to them, the less plastic in the marine environment the better, and they’ll take paper over plastic any day.

“We see paper as a better option because it does break down eventually. But paper bags have it’s own set of environmental issues such as resource depletion issues, and water issues,” James said.

For a list of pros and cons on paper, plastic and canvas read .

Pam Ledesma June 09, 2012 at 02:29 PM
The "single-use bag ban" is absolutely not a paper vs. plastic discussion! A "single-use" bag made of ANYTHING is the problem. Allowing the widespread practice of distributing shopping carryout bags that are intentionally designed to be used once (or maybe twice) is ignoring so many of the problems that this modern tradition causes. What a waste of our petroleum, natural gas and trees! Both the plastics industry and the paper industry are very worried that the profits from their bag sales will quickly disappear if these annoying bag bans spread throughout the world—and they are. Why are those industries (especially the plastics industry) spending so much money fighting the bans? Because the profits on single-use bags are that high. A company making a profit is a great thing, unless the company is producing a product that is causing a mess in the world that the rest of us need to clean up. That is not OK. Do you think those industries could redirect their staff to develop and sell useful products that are really needed in the world? You bet they could. They could even make sturdy, attractive re-usable shopping bags—and hopefully they will be soon. We’ve got a lot of problems in the world that are waaaaay more important to fix right now than this single-use bag stuff. Let’s just be adults and get on with it, and stop confusing the issue with a paper vs. plastic discussion! Pam Ledesma

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