This article was originally written for the Harvest Coop membership newsletter. Harvest is Autonomie’s favorite local coop market here in Boston. We encourage all of you to support your neighborhood coops and buy local & organic whenever possible!

In the meantime, let Chris Durkin, Harvest’s Director of Membership and Community Relations, enlighten you on how the everyday supermarket decision of Paper vs. Plastic could be harming our environment in ways you can’t even imagine. If you didn’t have enough reasons before, you’ll want to run out now more than ever and pick up a load of reusable shopping bags from our friends at Eco Bags or the increasingly popular Chico Bag.

By Chris Durkin

Paper vs. plastic. Plastic vs. paper. As you stand in line, you ask yourself which is the “green” choice?

Of course, the answer is neither. Both use significant energy and natural resources to produce, and even if reused or recycled, produce significant pollution. Then why the big movement by politicians to ban plastic bags? This is the result of dubious science, where they decide one is a more popular villain than the other. We get occasional requests to charge for bags rather than give a discount. The effect of that would be to make people shop elsewhere – which won’t work for the long-term survival of your co-op.

Paper uses significant amount of natural resources – trees – to make a paper bag. Trees have to be cut, moved from the forest to the plant, then dried for three years before they can be processed. Moving large logs means fossil fuel consumption, either through trucking on roads that also destroy habitats, or in some cases by helicopter. Logging is also a dangerous – and not well-paid – job. Once dried, the wood then has to be cubed, “cooked”, then treated with water, sulfuric acid, and bleach to be made into paper pulp. Then it has to be processed, cut, printed, packaged and shipped, using more energy. Some estimate that paper uses 70% more energy, produces more air pollution, and significantly more – up to 50 times more – water pollution than plastic bags. So paper is actually a triple threat – cutting down forests which absorb greenhouse gases; an energy gobbling and polluting process; and at a much higher purchase price – 5 times the cost per bag – than your co-op pays for plastic bags.

Plastic bags are made as a byproduct – polyethylene – of the oil refining process. Although they use less energy than paper to produce, the process is the highly toxic result of non-renewable source. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), plastic production uses 5 of the 6 top listed chemicals that generate toxic waste. (Which leads to another question for another time – why are these chemicals still being used? – OK, we all know who runs the EPA). Over 380 billion plastic bags are used in the US each year. None of these facts take into account the effects of oil spills and the occasional military action.

What happens after these bags are used? Paper can be recycled; but that process is energy, resource (water again) and chemically intensive. Most paper bags that are recycled are made into cardboard. If paper bags end up as trash, it is not as toxic as plastic, but since most landfills are capped, paper doesn’t get the light, air and water necessary for decomposition. Plastic recycling uses less resources, and takes up less space in landfills, but will not decompose at all. A lot of plastic ends up getting burned for energy, releasing deadly dioxin into the ecosystem.

So there you have it. We aren’t trying to answer the “paper vs. plastic” debate, just giving you some information to make your own decision; which is better is up to you. The only truly green solution is to bring your own bags. We have now (permanently, not just for Earth Month as a competitor did) doubled the bag refund to 10 cents per bag when you bring your own bag. We have sold over 3,500 reusable bags since we started almost 2 years ago, and given out many more to new members when they join Harvest. In the last fiscal year which ended April 26, 2008, Harvest gave back over $7,000 in bag refunds. Now that we have doubled the bag discount to 10 per bag when you bring your own bag, it makes more sense to bring your own bag(s) when you shop at Harvest.

Information from the Environmental Literacy Council,, and the Washington Post were used in this article.