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Whether paper, plastic or canvas, the best choice is to reuse

Paper or plastic? It's the gnawing question at the grocery store checkout line for those of us who want to make the Earth-friendly choice. Paper is biodegradeable and made from a renewable resource, while plastic is neither. So, paper must be a b...

Paper or plastic?

It's the gnawing question at the grocery store checkout line for those of us who want to make the Earth-friendly choice.

Paper is biodegradeable and made from a renewable resource, while plastic is neither. So, paper must be a better environmental choice, right? Not necessarily.

Experts say more factors must be considered, including the energy used and the waste and pollution created in both manufacturing and transporting bags to stores.

Plastic or polyethylene bags, which are made from crude oil and natural gas, are less polluting to manufacture. They require 40 percent less energy to make and produce 80 percent less solid waste in the process, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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Plastic bags weigh less and are more compact than paper bags so they're less costly to transport. It takes seven trucks to transport the same number of paper bags as a single truck full of plastic bags, according to the Environmental Literacy Council.

Both paper and plastic bags are recyclable. But while paper is easily recyclable, plastic bags are not. The process to break down plastic bags -- to make trash can liners, wood-polymer lumber and new bags -- is more difficult than with hard plastics, explains Gina Temple-Rhodes, an environmental program coordinator for the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District in Duluth.

Local trash haulers don't take plastic bags with other recyclables and few places accept bags for recycling. The exception is local Wal-Mart stores, which have recycling bins near entrances.

The WLSSD is looking into recycling plastic bags and determining the market requirements, according to Karen Anderson, WLSSD community relations director.

"We do recognize it as being a real opportunity if we can get materials like that recycled," Anderson says. "But right now there are limited vendors to send them to."

Plastic bags can be made from several types of resins, which makes it difficult to separate them for recycling, she explains.

Many plastic bags end up in landfills, where they can take up to 1,000 years to degrade compared with 30 days for paper. But that still doesn't mean paper wins out. Plastic bags are less bulky and take up less space in landfills: 2,000 plastic bags weigh 30 pounds while 2,000 paper bags weigh 280 pounds and take up much more landfill space, EPA data shows.

Although paper normally degrades quickly, in a dry landfill without exposure to water, air and light, it may take as long as plastic to break down, according to the EPA.

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So what's the green answer? It's a toss-up between paper and plastic, Temple-Rhodes says.

"The best answer is to bring your own bag," she says. Reuse paper and plastic bags or buy a canvas bag, which some stores sell. The Whole Foods Co-op in Duluth offers a 5-cent per bag refund to members who bring their own bags.

Remember this simple math, the EPA says, when one ton of paper bags is reused or recycled, 13 to 17 trees are spared.

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