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Born Free USA Blog

Born Free USA Blog

Kill a tree or choke a seal?

Published 08/18/08
By Monica Engebretson, Senior Program Associate

“Paper or plastic?”

It’s a question asked millions of times a day and a decision that many of us make on a weekly basis. ... It’s a loaded question.

Choose paper and you’re probably contributing to the destruction of forests. Choose plastic and you may be contributing to the millions of plastic bags that end up in our oceans killing seals, sea turtles, dolphins, and other marine life.

Put that way, sacrificing a tree starts to sound like the better option. But wait! Paper mills are one of the 10 most polluting industries, notorious for polluting waterways and, you guessed it, killing marine animals.

To make the decision just a little more complicated consider this: It takes roughly 12 million barrels of oil a year to produce the plastic bags used in the United States. But, producing paper bags requires 40% more energy (much of it produced by using fossil fuels) to produce.

On the plus side for paper, paper bags are often made with 35% to 100% recycled paper and they are easier to recycle than plastic bags which have 1–5% recycle rate. This is largely because it costs more to recycle a plastic bag than to make a new one.

On the plus side for plastic they take up about 5 times less space for trucking and are lighter. so there is a fossil fuel savings when transportation is considered.

So what’s a tree-hugging, sea-turtle-loving consumer to do?

BYOB (Bring your own bag!)

Either re-use some of the plastic and paper bags you have lying around the house (I recommend putting them in your car for those unplanned shopping trips) or get some cloth bags. The nice thing about cloth bags is you can use them to spread a message while shopping.

You can educate about the plight of captive birds or the cruelty of the circus, or promote compassionate fashion.

Happy shopping!


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