On March 27, the San Francisco board of supervisors voted 10-1 to require the city's largest grocers and retailers to use only recyclable paper bags, reusable cloth bags or compostable plastic bags at the checkout counters.
This is an extraordinary example of a misguided attempt to solve an important problem. All factual studies have come to the same conclusion - plastic bags are more environmentally favorable than paper bags.
Germany is the most environmentally conscious country in the world. In 1988, its Federal Office of the Environment compared 50,000 plastic bags and paper bags. The report is titled ``Comparison of Environmental Compatibility of Paper and Polyethylene Merchandise Bags.'' It was issued under the direction of Dr. Wolfgang Plehn.
Its results show the production of paper bags compared to production of polyethylene bags generates significantly higher environmental stress in the air and waste water.
Comparison of the energy consumption between PE and paper merchandise bags showed a distinct advantage for plastic bags. For paper production, not only are nonrenewable energy resources (crude oil) required, but it also uses 2 pounds of wood per pound of paper produced. The disposal of waste PE and paper in garbage incinerators does not produce significantly different emissions.
Plastic bags in dumpsters require much less volume than paper bags.
Comparison of the damage done to the environment from the manufacture of 50,000 paper and plastic bags shows:
* total energy consumption to produce paper bags is 1.49 times higher than for plastic bags.
* sulfur dioxide emissions to produce paper bags are 2.15 times higher than for plastic bags.
* nitrous oxides emissions to produce paper bags are 2.16 times higher than for plastic bags.
* carbon monoxide emissions to produce paper bags are 3.0 times higher than for plastic bags.
* methane emissions to produce paper bags are 1.93 times higher than for plastic bags.
* effluents show similar results.
The report's conclusion: switching from PE to paper merchandise bags would result in overall higher emissions and ecological disadvantages.
Bags are here to stay. To better understand the major advantages of plastics, let us assume that a law is passed, forcing the conversion of the 1 trillion plastic bags produced per year to paper.
If the paper bags were stacked, that stack would extend 725,000 miles high, more than three times the distance of the earth to the moon (239,000 miles). All that would have to go into landfill. Plastic would be only 55,000 miles high, about 13 times less.
The paper stack would weigh 70 million tons, the plastic stack 7.8 million tons, or nine times less.
To transport this amount of paper from the place of manufacture to its final destination at a landfill would require 4 million semi-trailer trips. For plastic bags, only 700,000 trips. The difference in diesel fuel, road wear and traffic congestion is enormous.
In addition, 140 million tons of wood would have to be transported from the forest to the paper plants. And 17 million acres of trees would have to be destroyed each year.
Why then are legislators trying to replace plastic bags with paper ones? The answer is the paper industry has been spending untold millions of dollars for years telling the public how bad plastics are for the environment, while the plastic industry has been lax in responding.
Of course plastics harm the environment! So does paper, cars, trucks and airplanes. But at the moment, they all are essential to our way of life.
The question is which is better for the environment - paper or plastic bags?
The marketplace and science have clearly given the answer: plastic. Unable to convince the public, it seems that the paper industry has turned to lobbying the politicians - a much easier target, given our electoral system - with significant success.
Some short-term actions can help. Use cloth net bags. Reuse plastic bags. Work to get your town to increase recycling. Urge your government to ban paper bags.
Long-term solutions are more difficult. They depend entirely on what the people want and how much they are willing to pay. When we realized that lead in gasoline was harming our children, it was eliminated at the cost of about 12 cents a gallon, which we still pay. Singapore streets are spotless because the penalty for littering is severe, and the law is enforced.
For the long term there are solutions. One might be to tag a $1 tax on each bag provided at the checkout counter. That money would be exclusively used to develop a garbage recycling system, a fully trained and equipped sanitation department with authority to enforce laws against littering and improper garbage sorting, help finance recycling companies and other ``clean street'' objectives. If beaches were kept clean, very few plastic bags would get into the water to harm wildlife. Prepackaged plastic bags could be bought at perhaps 15 for $3.00. Many other ideas could be explored.
Irvin I Rubin is a member of the Plastics Hall of Fame who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.