Paper or Plastic? Environmentalism as Public Religion

Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.

And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.

—Matthew 6: 2-6.

Shakespeare understood the difference between supplication via public bleating, the purpose of which is to draw attention to oneself, and secret prayer. “When holy and devout religious men are at their beads, ’tis much to draw them thence, so sweet is zealous contemplation.”

‘Tis nothing to draw forth an environmentalist. He will pray loudly and exhort you to do the same. He will say, as a gentleman recently told me, that he is “proud” to use paper bags instead of plastic, because “paper is good for the environment.”

He wears buttons to show his devotion, so that all can see that he is moral. He will stand on the street corner with a clipboard begging alms “Do you have a minute to save the environment?” He will issue a press release when he donates money. Worst, he will become bug-eyed when somebody questions his faith.

I have, yet again, had cause to spend time in San Francisco. When there, I shop at Safeway, a grocery store. They do not offer plastic bags, but paper. These bags are routinely doubled, as are plastic bags in New York City stores. The double lining of paper makes for a sturdy carrying case (me being a devoutly green person, I do not own a car, so have to carry my loot).

I have been told that paper has been pushed by an piously environmental City Council. I have also read that bags of any kind are soon to be outlawed—yes, made against the law—at convenience stores, liquor marts and the like. Citizens will have to grow used to carrying their own bags. Or learn not to buy from small stores.

Now, paper bags weigh about 0.16 lbs each. Plastic weighs about 0.011 lbs. Paper, in other words, is about 15 times heavier than plastic. My grocery-carrying experience shows one paper bag holds about the same as one plastic, perhaps a little more.

Plastic bags, at least most of them, do not biodegrade; though they do photodegrade. Most plastic bags end in landfills, where they will remain a good, long time. Until somebody recycles them, that is. They can be made into, among other things, robust furniture.

I’m sure that major stores have discovered efficiencies in delivering paper bags. But paper is bulkier than plastic, probably by something like 10 times. Paper bags, then, require from 10-15 times more fuel to transport, and roughly 10 times as much storage space as plastic.

The transport and storage are not just one way. The customer will take these bags home, and most will end in the trash or recycling bin. It costs 10-15 times as much to haul away the paper as plastic. Plus, for those bags that aren’t recycled, the space on the garbage trucks isn’t insignificant. Nor is it on the recycling truck.

In other words, a lot of fuel is burned up carting paper bags to and fro. Plus, much space is taken; space at the store which is heated, air conditioned, kept dry. This is fuel and space that could have been saved had plastic bags been used.

Plastic, made from natural gas which we have in abundance, eventually sits in the landfill—and sits, and sits. But that’s all it does: sits. And sits in a trash heap, a place set aside for rubbish. Meaning, of course, that it can be avoided. Even when it eventually breaks down, it still sits, creating small particles of plastic which, as far as we know, are largely harmless. This might not turn out to be true, of course; it could be that degraded plastic beads cause sniffles in snails, or cause plastic-infused water.

Which is better: paper or plastic? I don’t know. It turns out to be a complicated calculation, the answer anything but singular. It might very well be that paper is better, but it isn’t obviously so.

Therefore, certitude, and its accompanying mandates against plastic, as found in some localities such as San Francisco, can only have come from religious revelation.


  1. Tom M

    I have found many after-uses for both paper and plastic bags. I use paper bags to store old newspapers and magazines. I use plastic bags to line small trash bins and as lunch bags.

    If these were eliminated, I will have to alter my current practices. I’m guessing that it will be easier to simply throw od newspapers out in the bulk trash rather than to bother wrapping small bundles of papers up in twine (a practice tht would take far more time). And I would have to buy plastic trash can liners and small paper lunch bags to replace the plastic grocery bags.

    If I am forced to buy canvas bags to cart groceries around, I will have to wash these every now and then. Thus more detergent will be released into the environment.

  2. John

    And plastic contains carbon so a cheap, effective way of carbon capture in the ground.

    We, in Europe, have to buy at minimal cost “bags for life”. These are sturdy plastic bags issued for a small fee by supermarkets who have ceased to dole out plastic, or paper, bags. When the “bag for life” starts to deteriorate and spew shopping onto the floor, the supermarket on presentation of the decaying bag issues a new one.

    A recent report in the UK shows that a typical “bag for life”‘ after it has been in use for a while, is heavily contaminated with salmonella and other unpleasant bacteria.

    It is written, “Greater love hath no man than to die of food poisoning to save the life of the Planet.”

  3. Eric Anderson

    I don’t have anything wrong with someone practicing their religion openly and inviting others to participate, but you are right that at some point the public alms-giving part becomes self-serving, perhaps even part of the “reward” for the religious obeisance.

    I’m a bit late reading the paper and just this morning noticed an article in the San Jose Mercury News from Thursday:

    Picture on the front page of the section of a couple that own 5 electric cars of different makes/models. And a quote from a guy who has ordered the new Tesla Model S: “Because it’s a showoff car and I’m a showoff. I’ll have people drooling over my Model S Signature Edition.”

    The article also says: “The Model S queue is thick with tree-hugging gear heads. Going electric means weaning the world off its oil addiction. And many of those in line call themselves EVangelists, already using their electric vehicles to spread the gospel every time they pull out of their driveway.” Interesting choice of words, in light of your post.

    I follow the industry pretty closely and anticipate I will purchase an all-electric or a plug in hybrid car within the next couple of years. However, it will be more from an interest in energy efficiency/independence, and an interest in new technology, rather than an illusion that I am saving the planet. I’ll try to watch out for your admonition about public alms. 🙂

  4. DAV

    The paper used in bags is low quality paper. They likely have been made from recycled white paper. Paper can only be recycled so many times. It’s made from strands of cellulose. Each time it’s recycled, more strands are broken. Eventually, it becomes too weak to become anything but mush. Plastic OTOH can be recycled many times. Newspapers, ad flyers, phone books, toilet paper and egg cartons (the non-plastic variety) are made from low quality paper which is difficult to recycle.

    Plastic does have a longer lifetime in a landfill but it’s not an infinite one. Eventually plastic decomposes and it too is broken down by micro-organisms. Is the residue harmful? Perhaps, but it was manufactured from rotten vegetable and animal matter albeit ancient. It will eventually return to that. Strangely, my garbage must be contained in plastic bags. It’s a local requirement apparently enforced by the county landfill and I presume the rest of the state as well. Must be a reason.

    It appears that the only advantage to paper (bags) is that they quickly degrade in landfills. On the plus side for plastic grocery bags: I can carry nearly all of my groceries at one time (usually about 6 bags — I hate going to the grocery and procrastinate which means I have more to buy at one time) while I can carry at most 4 paper bags. I use the bags for small wastebasket (4 gallon) liners, storage, keeping my camera dry among other things.

    Maybe it’s out educational system; maybe it’s an outgrowth of the hippie movement. I don’t know. Our society seems lately to have fallen into trying fixes without any grasp of the bigger picture. Paper vs. Plastic is just another example.

  5. gcb

    The area that I live in is moving, one merchant at a time, to a “we don’t give bags, bring your own” system. This has two immediate benefits for the merchant – they don’t have to pay the fraction of a cent per bag, thus reducing their overhead, and they have a convenient display of their “re-usable” bags right by the cash register where you can purchase one should you have neglected to bring yours, encouraging an extra sale or two. All this in the name of “the environment”, of course, but I have yet to see any merchant promise to pass on the extra profits to any “green charity” (or any other charity, for that matter).

  6. dearieme

    My local co-op store gives me biodegradable plastic bags to hold my shopping. Later I fill them with biodegradable – in part – cat litter to throw in the bin. If our cats hadn’t been scared by a fox, they would still defecate and micturate outdoors instead of cowering indoors. So I conclude that foxes aren’t green and that fox-hunting should be relegalised forthwith – or better yet made compulsory.

  7. Doug M

    California is looking to copy San Francisco’s law. San Francisco is looking to make theirs more stringent.

    I collect plastic bags from my friends in the suburbs. I use them to clean up dog sh!t. When I run out, I have to buy them. The producers of plastic bags know this. They say that when the bans go in place, sales of plastic bags increase.

    Dispite popular opinion, paper is does more to clog the landfills that pastic bags do. The landfill is designed to prevent biodegradation. Your sanitation department doesn’t want organic waste breaking down into methane and other toxic byproducts. Paper bags don’t break down.

  8. JH

    We also use platic bags as trash bags. I bought some Elizabeth Haub Foundation bags during our summer visit to NYC a while ago. They can be easily wiped clean, and we still have them. My problem is that I often forget to bring them to the store and end up running back to my car to get them. Well, more exercise, I guess.

  9. Mikey

    I recall guilt-tripping attempts to get me to use plastic to “save our forests.” Then somewhat suddenly plastic fell out of favor — but it seemed to coincide with the disclosure of plastic bags littering large areas of the ocean. Plastic bags in landfills does not appear to be the problem, but rather the reckless discarding of plastic that finds a way to the ocean. Do the purveyors of the current save-the-planet trend even know how or why the trend got started? And as some have pointed out, business is always happy to exploit to the bottom line the public’s perceptions and misconceptions.

  10. Being a forester I prefer paper bags; paper is made from milling waste and pollarded trees mostly. You might prefer plastic bags because it rains a lot where you are, and plastic bags don’t lose their strength when wet. The life cycle assessment of each can start a magnificent headache. But you’re exactly right; it’s a personal call.

    There is one point for the plastic bags where they become something other than a personal choice. When they blow out into the streets and gutters. While litter is simply unattractive, plastic bags have a tendency to clog storm drains which can cause more than a few cents in damage. If SF used the costs associated with overtime cleaning storm drains as part of their rationale, it might make sense and save more than a few cents.

    @Eric, I recommend Robert Bryce’s book, Power Hungry. You might consider a high-efficiency diesel car instead.

  11. kdk33

    I thought it was common knowledge that plastic had a smaller carbon footprint (I don’t have a reference). Either way, plastic wins form a carbon sequestration view point.

    I thought I was those plastic six pack holders that caused all the trouble.

    We use hemp bags…

  12. I’m not sure that the choice between paper or plastic represents clashing religions. What we have here is clashing assumptions and clashing conclusions, a big grey area of uncertainty, and a rush to social control by power-mad paranoids.

    There is no question that the imposition of behavioral codes based on poorly-justified, perceived guilt has a religious odor to it. Some elements are lacking, however. Religions separate the sacred from the profane; which type of bag is sacred? Religions posit supernatural agents who (that) mediate the sacred. Which god has blessed which type of bag? (Would Jesus use paper or plastic?)

    As many as the parallels are, and as tempting as it is to place the mantle of religion on environmentalism, it could be that enviro-fanatics are merely dystopic, knee-jerk authoritarians without a coherent theology.

    There are various forms of authoritarianism (a form of social organization characterized by submission to authority) that are not religions per se, that co-exist with religions, and that might even accept (demand?) multiple religions within their imposed social structures.

    I see the bag debate and other enviro excesses as social control struggles aimed at quashing individualism. While that smells like religion, it tastes like secular fascism.

  13. Here you go @kdk33

    Net Carbon Emissions In Producing A Ton Of Material kg C/metric ton
    Framing lumber -460
    Concrete 45
    Concrete block 49
    Brick 148
    Glass 630
    Steel 1,090
    Aluminum 2,400
    Plastic 2,810

    Source: Honey and Buchanan, Department of Civil Engineering,
    University of Canterbury, Christchurch, NZ, 1992.

    Of course there is energy used to manufacture the paper from the wood that will cut in to that negative 460 kg of carbon. And as Professor Briggs notes, paper bags weigh more. Still, it doesn’t look like it’s a race to me.

    As far as “Environmentalism as Religion,” that was the title of a talk by Michael Crichton at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, CA on September 15, 2003 ( It’s worth a look.

  14. bob

    Of course, George Carlin had his views on plastic bags.

    I don’t like plastic bags, and my wife hates paper bags. She says they fill up the recycle bin too fast.

    You would think that we would have nothing but paper bags since I am the one that does the grocery shopping. Things don’t always work out for me at our house.

    When the bagger asks me the question, “Paper or plastic?”, I know I am in trouble if I get paper. But, if I get plastic bags, the bagger puts too many items in the bag and I am later faced with crawling into the trunk of the car to retrieve apples, pears, and cans of beans and tuna fish. My solution is to have the bagger put no more than two items in a bag, and then I get the weirdo-look while I constantly reprove them for disobeying my commands.

    Life can be tough.

  15. drm

    These are commodities so IMHO the price can be used as a proxy for the environmental cost. A non-scientific search for prices finds $134/10,000 kraft paper grocery bags (the lightest weight) vs. $50/10,000 for plastic (one of the larger ones listed, to compare to the paper). Different grades or suppliers might narrow the price differential, but it sure looks like paper has a much higher energy and materials footprint than plastic.

    DAV: plastic does degrade on recycling. The molecular weight declines every time it is melted and reformed, and the color degrades. Recycled plastic ends up in colored products, often green; a blue dye is added to the yellow plastic to make green.

  16. @drm: What studies show that price indicates environmental cost? Economists use price as a proxy for scarcity/availability but the externalities such as environmental effects (by definition are effects that are not part of the price calculation) are not included in the price.

  17. Ken

    The religion of environmentalism, and related “do-gooder” religions are designed to give their adherents what they need to feel good about themselves — and to accomplish this with minimal thinking.

    Symbolism thus trumps substance as the readily apparent (plastic is alien to the environment, therefore bad) is immediately grasped & the work–a chore–of thinking & concluding that paper might not be so good either just doesn’t happen.

    Its all about feeling good in the minds of people that feel bad about themselves (self-loathing).

    That’s why they pounce on issues in which the solution involves some sort of pennance (give up plastic & the associated conveniences, etc.).

    Note that you’ve NEVER observed them pouncing on environmental issues that adversely impact people but which occur naturally (such as Radon).

    In noting that this or similar causes are forms of religion it is approapriate to note that these are SICK-SOULED religions whose adherents [with the exception of those that just don’t know enough, yet] are themselves sick in their way.

  18. Doug M


    Price = cost + profits

    Costs = labor costs + input costs

    For many comodity products, energy is the primary input cost. Usually, less expensive is green. Wal Mart saves the planet.

  19. John Galt

    Good Lord, what a waste of effort. I take whatever the bagger is offering. Dealer’s choice.

  20. todd

    Since when is religion a bad word?

  21. DaveK

    2,800 kg of carbon emitted in producing a metric ton of plastic? I call BS on that. There may be some of the exotic plastics that are that expensive to make, but for something like polyethylene, a pretty basic petrochemical, I think that number is way over the top.

    I don’t believe that you could get close to 2,800 kg of carbon consumed to make a ton of polyethylene, even counting the 800 kg (plus or minus) of carbon that gets sequestered into the ton of plastic. I think the real number is about 2 kg consumed for every 1 kg produced, yielding only something like 1 ton of emissions per ton of PE.

    Also, a quick look through the internet shows that the preferred kraft paper used for bags has something like 4,000 kg of greenhouse gas equivalent emissions per metric ton, IF you assume a 60% level of recycling. If you assume no recycling, it rises to over 6,000 kg.

    Plastic bags still win, hands down!

  22. I think we’ve proven Professor Brigg’s contention that, similar to religion, we will bring our beliefs and warp the facts to meet those beliefs. And, in certain cases simply refuse to accept facts.

    As for price reflecting the environmental costs, it more often reflects the ability of the lobby (industry or environmental) to single out boons or bugbears. One only need to look at corn ethanol and the government’s subsidies of that boondoggle to smell that rat.

    “While substitutes for wood may in some cases be cheaper, the monetary price does not always reflect such environmental costs as energy requirements and the fossil carbon dioxide and toxic products released into the atmosphere (Koch 1992). A U.S. National Science Foundation panel analyzed the amount of energy necessary to extract, transport, and convert various raw materials into finished products (CORRIM 1976). They found that, in general, substituting other materials for wood products comes at a high cost in terms of energy. Steel framing requires 13 times more energy consumption than wood framing. Aluminum framing for exterior walls is nearly 20 times as energy intensive as wood framing. Steel floor joists require 50 times as much energy as wood joists. Even details such as wall-to-wall carpeting with a pad rather than hardwood flooring add up; the carpet/pad combination is four times more energy intensive than the wood (Koch 1992). Ton-for-ton comparisons favor wood even more.” – Wm Libby, printed in BioScience, Volume 48 No. 6——-June 1998

  23. Rob

    Paper bags never float up off of the freeway and insinuate themselves into the radiator grill of my car.

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