Should Our Use of Paper or Plastic Be an Individual Choice or Be Regulated By the Government?

Photo of plastic bags in front of and on a fence
One million plastic bags are used every minute.

"Paper or plastic?" asks a grocery clerk in Des Moines. You no longer hear that question in San Francisco. In 2007, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors banned grocery stores from using plastic bags to bag groceries. Groceries are put in paper bags or bags customers bring from home. Many applaud San Francisco for creating the bag law and urge other cities to follow the northern California city's example and today many other cities across the country are creating their own bag laws. Others say that the city government has overstepped its bounds. They feel the city took action that it should not have taken.

Photo of plastic bags piled next to a recycling container.
Plastic bags are piling up and becoming a big problem.

Plastic bags are such a small item that many people have trouble understanding how one bag can be a problem, but we need to realize that Americans throw away 100 billion plastic bags a year. Since plastic bags are made from petroleum, the resources used are the equivalent of dumping nearly 12 million barrels of oil. When these plastic bags get waterlogged and sink to the bottom of lakes or oceans, they cover the floor that is the feeding ground of many animals such as shrimp, shellfish, and sponges. To understand how the bags affect living things in the water, imagine that you are eating dinner at your dinner table and someone throws a big plastic bag over your dinner table and you. The majority of plastic bags are recyclable if the material is clean, dry, and without black pigment.

Supporters say banning plastic bags is a good strategy. They say that our earth is being polluted and its resources are being wasted. They cite research that says plastic bags are bad for the environment. Plastic is not biodegradable, so the plastic bags will stay in the landfills for hundreds of years. Plastic bags also litter the streets. Some drift out to sea and kill turtles and other sea creatures. Supporters of banning plastic bags argue that we need government intervention to protect the earth and its resources.

Opponents state that city governments have no authority to ban plastic bags. They argue that store owners are doing their part to help the environment. Some store owners are phasing in recycling strategies, such as placing recycling bins for the plastic bags in their stores.

People against the ban also point out that plastic bags do not pose any immediate danger. They claim that there are no data that prove that paper is better. After all, we chop down trees to make paper bags. In addition, paper bags weigh more than plastic bags, so it costs more to transport them from the factory to the store. They are not as strong as plastic, so we use more of them. Finally, people against the ban argue that private industry pays for the bags, not the taxpayers, so private industry should decide.

What is your opinion? Should city governments ban plastic bags or should the grocery stores decide?

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