Paper shopping bag - 100I guess I shouldn’t grouse, but  it bewilders me that the “paper-vs-plastic” controversy continues to command so much attention.  Latest example here:  apparently, some grocery stores in Seattle and San Francisco are giving plastic bags the boot, and will henceforth offer only paper bags.

I don’t really know whether paper or plastic is objectively better; I’ll leave that to more capable geeks.  But I will say this:  I’m almost certain that the issue gets far more attention than it really merits. 

What you put in your grocery bags probably makes a bigger difference than what kind of bag you choose.  So does how you get to and from the store.  But somehow, time and time again, it’s the bag that gets the headlines.

What gives?

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  • I think that the durability of the paper-vs-plastic “debate” may be traced to a common—but fundamentally misguided—idea about sustainability: that it’s all about personal choices.  That is, the key to living lightly on the planet is for all of us to do our homework, and to consistently make choices that reflect our values. 

    This isn’t a completely ridiculous point of view; individual choices certainly do matter.  If everyone makes the “right” choice about grocery bags, it could certainly make a bit of difference in the long run.

    But the paper-vs.-plastic debate exemplifies why the “personal choices” frame can be a harmful one.  You see, it’s actually quite difficult to decide whether paper or plastic is the better choice.  It depends in part on your values:  do you see paper as a renewable resource, or a bad use of forests?  But it also depends on factors that the average consumer just isn’t equipped to judge. 

    For example, one of the major raps against plastic bags is that they clog up recycling equipment—but not one in a hundred consumers is likely to know that.  Nor are most consumers likely to know the relative likelihood that they’ll actually reuse a paper vs. a plastic bag, nor the energy intensity of recycling and manufacturing for each type of bag.  Expecting each consumer to make an informed choice places a terrible burden on people’s time and attention—which, in turn, can make people less attentive to truly important issues.

    Just to be clear, I’m not arguing here that benign technocrats ought to figure out every issue for the unenlightened masses.  But the difficulty in figuring out the answers to even low-priority issues suggests this: as advocates for a more sustainable place, we ought to be focusing people’s attention on the things that really matter to our future.  And in my view, despite the hoopla, paper vs. plastic just doesn’t make the cut.