I faced the perennial question of ‘paper or plastic?’ once again as I stood in the checkout line at my local Food Arcade. I use both types of bag depending on domestic need (I’m bisacksual), and I happened to select paper on this occasion. As I received the printout from my 99% Club Lead Card (down-graded from my Platinum Card of twenty years ago), I felt the disapproving glares of customers behind me.
The bag-boy sullenly packed my groceries. The cashier eye-balled me with solemn judgment. A man in line piped, “Dude! Save the trees!” and the young girl holding his hand looked up at him, “Does that man hate our eco-system, daddy?” Publicly abashed, I thought about it on the way home. Had my environmental footprint turned me into one of those eco-terrorists I’d read about?
As a boy, I took paper bags for granted; though I still have vague memories of the parchment bags my mother used in the fifties. But, parchment became too expensive for a throw-away society’s created need to buy ever more of the flimsy products which exponentially increased industry profits and left in the wake of its greed the obsolete values of quality and pride once governing the manufacture of a decent product for a reasonable price while at the same time conserving finite resources…
But, I saw a commercial that said we have more trees now than ever. What about the biodegradability of the paper bag? I heard, too, that it takes twenty-five thousand years for a plastic bag to decompose. I thought about the millions of tons of plastic debris washed onto the world’s coastlines; but also of the vast tracts of baby pine trees sentenced to death in carefully cultivated industry graveyards where all life-forms which might interfere with quick commercial growth have been exterminated.
More confused than ever, I contacted Handel der Sachs, C.E.O. of Grocer’s Choice Unlimited, the world’s top supplier of grocery bags. He said that ‘paper or plastic?’ was the theme of this year’s corporate convention. “We’ve seen a lot of controversy in the bag business over the years,” he said. “The hand grip on the paper bag, for instance, is a sensitive subject for most retailers. Have you ever seen retailers offer both the bag with the hand grip and the one without it?”
I admitted I hadn’t. “Of course you haven’t; you never will. These ideological sub-divisions were mapped out long ago. One can still see examples of it in the old papyrus bags of antiquity. Some of the bags unearthed in Egyptian tombs had hand grips and some didn’t, depending on the beliefs of the reigning king and the merchants serving him. In most essential aspects, the entire history of the grocery bag industry was founded on efforts to mollify these two antithetical ideologies.”
I wondered how the plastic bag had evaded the controversies of the paper bag. “Owing to the schism caused by the hand grip on the paper bag, ” he explained, “the hand grip on the plastic bag was integrated with its conception and was inherent in it. Only that and advertising appeals to the green movement and its fear-based nonsense about “diminishing resources’ allowed it to compete with the paper bag.” It made sense.
He suggested that the hand grip controversy may even have been fueled by the old “Bag Czars” of the mid-twentieth century as a P.R. stunt. “Their ruthless zeal forced the conflict into the forefront long before the Supreme Court ruled that the matter of hand grips was to be decided by the market…. but it never was, and the commercial bag industry remains polarized.
“Some customers provide their own personal hand-totes in an attempt to avoid the conflict… but,” he added, “I strongly advise against it. The average private tote has more bacteria than a construction site Port-a-Potty.” I quickly ruled out the private tote option — however, the question of ‘paper or plastic?’ stubbornly persisted.
He went on to explain how the division rose naturally out of the business itself: “These values run deep in the veins of the individual merchant — they always have — and the split between the two camps has only intensified over time.” My head was spinning. It seemed the more I searched for answers the more complex became the questions. “But what about ‘paper vs. plastic’?” I groped, “What does the data say?”
He looked pensive. “Our own independent study, ‘Eco-system Toxicity and Bio-degradation’ has confirmed what many scientists have long suspected: the pollutants and contaminants inherent in generating and maintaining our current consumption-system require a baseline toxicity level for every product generated by that system; each has a similar effect on the environment — regardless of composition, biodegradability, production quality, or end-use.”
The study revealed an “apparent bio-degradation” which was neither less nor more impactful on the environment than so-called “open bio-degradation.” I was stunned. “So you mean it doesn’t matter which bag I use; its net effect on the environment is the same?” I couldn’t believe it. “That’s correct.” he said. “The law of quantitative equivalence demands it; the old qualitative analyses only served to obfuscate it…”
He went on, but I could no longer hear him. I was already overwhelmed by more information than I could process. Far outweighing my confusion, however, was the profound sense of relief that humanity’s future rests securely in the hands of science merged in partnership with business and technology to serve the needs of the global community. The issue of ‘paper or plastic?’ suddenly seemed small in comparison.
Is the world too complicated? Where is our perspective on modern values?