Let's be honest: Whether it's paper or plastic, the use of a disposable bag to tote stuff home from the store is a bad habit. The debate over "plastic or paper" can go on forever; neither is much better than the other.
Even biodegradable plastic bags, or those made from recycled material, have their down sides and are not significantly greener than their straight paper or plastic brethren. They all are part of one hugely wasteful practice that has become part of modern way of life.
That's why a statewide plastic bag ban, like the one making its way through the state Legislature, as feel-good as it may be, is not the grand environmental solution it's being billed as. It may put a small dent in the problem by reducing the most visible problems, like coastal pollution and litter.
But it won't fundamentally shift our real problem with plastics, which is that too much of it today is used for single-use, disposable products.
Under the proposed bill, the latest in a decade-long effort, grocery stores and supermarkets, and eventually liquor stores and pharmacies, would be banned from giving out plastic bags and would have to charge 10 cents each for a paper or reusable plastic bag. The bill would prevent the manufacture and disposal of an estimated 20 billion plastic bags each year. That's a good thing, in theory.
But what about trash bags, dry cleaning bags, and Ziploc bags? Or the plastic bags the newspaper arrives in? Many sources of plastic bags will still exist outside the confines of this law. Beyond that, there are still endless other sources of pre-made plastic garbage -- think plastic packaging and soda bottles. As Susan Freinkel, the author of "Plastics: A Toxic Love Story," has noted, single-use plastic items account for 600 billion pounds of plastic produced each year.
In a world of diminishing resources, expanding population and concerns about man-made pollution, we need policies that make more efficient use of resources. Plastic bags my be an environmental evil to some, but plastic certainly isn't. It's used in solar panels and to make cars lighter and reduce fuel consumption. The plastic syringe has transformed health care delivery, especially in poor countries, and is found in life-saving pacemakers and dialysis equipment.
Eliminating plastic bags isn't bad policy, but on its own, it doesn't achieve much. More than likely, it will drive up the use of alternative bags, which carry nearly the same environmental perils.
The plastic bag debate needs to shift from one about bags to one about the wasteful use of a necessary resource. In reality, plastics are incredibly important and useful, even environmentally friendly. We just need to stop using them in a way that isn't.