Paper, Plastic or Bring Your Own?

About the author: Brenda Reyes Tomassini joined EPA in 2002. She is a public affairs specialist in the San Juan, Puerto Rico office and also handles community relations for the Caribbean Environmental Protection Division

On a recent Sunday morning, I went to a local clothing store to purchase a gift bag for a present that one of my kids was taking to a birthday party. I usually keep recyclable gift bags at home, but this day, I had none. Upon paying, I proceeded to put the rather small bag in my purse along with the receipt. The cashier told me that I needed to put the gift bag in a plastic bag because it was store policy not to let customers walk out of the store with unbagged merchandise. Baffled, I placed my purchase in the store bag, but not before telling her that in Europe and some other islands in the Caribbean, stores either tax their customers for their use or simply don’t provide them. Her reply was the same: store policy.

I remember as a child, going with my mother to the supermarket and packing our groceries in paper bags. These were later reused. I fondly recall tearing them at the seams and using the inside for drawing and making crafts. I also remember how brown paper bags gradually disappeared from our lives when plastic ones were introduced in 1977.

Each year plastic bags cause the death of hundreds of thousands of sea birds and marine animals that mistake them for food. Paper, if not recycled, can fill our landfills and contribute in the long run to climate change. Both, paper and plastic require a lot of energy and raw materials to be produced.

But old habits die hard and our local businesses and industries have been slow in adopting sustainable and green practices. Even though some sell reusable bags, when the time comes to pack their purchases, I only see a small number of people using them. Some non-profit and environmental organizations in the United States have proposed a tax on plastic bags to discourage their use. In 2007, the city of San Francisco, California passed a city ordinance to ban plastic bag use in supermarkets and pharmacies. In Ireland, and since 2002, citizens have been paying a tax to use plastic bags. In turn, their use has dropped by 90% and the government has raised money for recycling programs. As more cities and countries declare a ban on plastic bags, retailers and consumers need to be aware that there is more than paper or plastic. And that is Bring Your Own.