I was listening to "Here & Now" on WHYY the other day and heard an interview with Bob Lilienfeld on the issue of "paper vs. plastic." It's one of those issues that makes my head hurt because of the complexity.
First we welcomed plastic bags because we could stop using paper bags and "save the trees." Now plastic has taken over the landfills, bags are hanging shredded from trees along the highways, and they're spilling from our closets as we collect them to take to the grocery to recycle them - assuming our stores actually do recycle them, and not just pitch them (as some do).
Did you know, for example, that 50% of all the plastic bags collected for recycling by grocery stores such as ours (Giant) are not made into more grocery bags, but instead into faux wood decking? Which is good, in that they don't wind up caught in trees along the highways or in landfills, but bad in that eventually they do end up in landfills when the decks are no longer wanted, and then they will take even longer to break down. It also means that more plastic bags are manufactured from scratch to take the place of the ones that are made into faux wood decking instead of into recycled plastic bags.
Is the faux wood decking worse than using real wood? Hm, says Lilienfeld, maybe not, because we have to factor in the chemicals used to pressure treat real wood if it's going to be made into decks (so that it won't rot - i.e. biodegrade), and if you paint it, those chemicals as well. What goes into making the paint & the chemicals? And of course, how long does it take the paint & chemicals to break down (and what do they do to the environment when they enter the soil)? Not so easy to determine which is greener.
Say, how about those new biodegradable plastic bags? They sound better than they are, according to Lilienfeld. The problem is that the one grocery stores are beginning to use cannot biodegrade in ordinary landfills, but must be buried in special landfills, meaning that municipalities must set up their own plants that can process polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) (yes, I had to look that word up - my memory for chemical compounds isn't that good!). Here's the only article I could find on it quickly.
What about everything we've heard about those great "compostable" plastic bags? Well, I haven't spoken with anyone who has used them, so I don't know. This site and this one both promise "no actual polyethylene," but why add the word "actual"? Do they contain "virtual" polyethylene? I just wonder about that wording. Lilienfeld warns that these so-called "biodegradable plastic bags" are NOT compostable and should NOT be put in compost that is used on vegetables.
A caller to the show pointed out that another problem with using cornhusks, the most common ingredient in these alternative plastic bags, is that it means fewer cornhusks are plowed under. The benefit of plowing cornhusks into the soil is that they prevent soil erosion. Make enough of these cornhusks into plastic bags, and more erosion results. Sheesh, I would never have thought of that, but it makes sense!
As Pogo said, "it's all connected."
So what's the solution? Reusable bags, for one. We have a bunch of cloth bags, and we have a few that fold up pretty small to be stuffed in pockets, and we can carry them around just in case. If stores stopped giving away bags, people would start carrying their own (after they spent a mighty long time bitching about poor service).
Ah, it doesn't really solve the problem, does it?