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Paper, plastic, or neither?

(article, Caroline Cummins)

When it comes to food, plastic is a fantastic packaging substance. Be it in bags, boxes, or cling-film wraps, the lightweight material helps keep comestibles sealed and fresh.

But unlike dinner, of course, plastic is forever. Which is why, earlier this year, San Francisco banned plastic bags in its supermarkets and chain drugstores. Other cities around the country, including Annapolis, Boston, Baltimore,  and Portland, Oregon, are considering following suit. Bangladesh banned plastic bags in 2002; the same year, Ireland imposed a "plastax" surcharge on plastic bags, causing their use to drop by 90 percent.

New York City, naturally, put its own fashionista spin on the whole idea back in July, when Whole Foods briefly sold a limited-edition canvas shopping bag by London designer Anya Hindmarch. (The bags had already been a huge hit in Britain and Taiwan.) Ridiculous as the idea might seem — selling environmentalism via fashion — the thinking is rather sly: "Even if you can’t interest people in a cause on moral or ethical grounds you can reach them by making the cause fashionable," wrote Marian Burros in the New York Times.

As Burros reminded readers, plastic (typically made from petroleum, yet another environmental no-no) is far more pervasive than canvas, taking an estimated 500 years to degrade:

bq. Meantime they hang from trees, catch on power lines, float on oceans and lakes and clog storm drains, killing birds, fish, turtles and sea mammals unfortunate enough to ingest them or become entangled in them.

bq. Americans throw away 100 billion plastic bags a year, recycling less than 1 percent of them, according to the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental research and advocacy group in Washington.

[%image feed-image float=right width=400 credit="Photo © Culinate" caption="The Culinate Green Bag."]

Solutions? Well, those chain stores in San Francisco are supposed to be offering recyclable paper bags or compostable bags made from corn starch. The paper bags, of course, are made from trees — not so great for the planet's forest cover. Meanwhile, the corn-starch bags have a plasticky feel to them, which makes them useful for messy foods. But they're made from corn, an agriculturally subsidized commodity that, as we've pointed out before on Culinate, might be better used for food instead of becoming the country's catchall commodity.

Sigh. All of this is one reason why many grocery stores (including Whole Foods) now sell their own editions of reusable cloth bags to customers at checkout stands. Many of these bags are the polypropylene Green Bags; we've even ordered up some for ourselves here at Culinate. They're fabulous for shopping — but not so useful, alas, for wrapping up leftovers.

Elsewhere on Culinate: An article about plastic-bag alternatives.

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