Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: Virtue Ethics: An Ethical Development Program for High School Youth

Paper, Plastic, or Cloth

Part of Virtue Ethics

The ban started in 2006, on Tanzania's Zanzibar archipelago. The Zanzibar islands on the Indian Ocean are famous for their pristine beaches and their history of trade in spices and slaves. Today, Zanzibar depends on tourism for most of its income. One month after this island paradise was named as potentially becoming one of the most environmentally endangered islands on the planet, the ban took effect.

What was banned?

Plastic bags.

Thin, plastic bags, used by most vendors, were endangering the islands' fragile ecology. A study found that the bags clogged water channels, killed marine life and livestock, polluted the soil, and creating breeding places for malaria-carrying mosquitoes. A partial ban was passed in 2006. In 2011, the Tanzanian government was considering a complete ban on the manufacture and use of all plastic bags everywhere in the country, which is also home to the Serengeti National Park, a world famous site for safaris.

A total ban will mean anyone manufacturing, dispersing, or importing plastic bags in Tanzania could face six months in prison, a fine, or both. Retailers and manufacturers have fought the ban, claiming it is impossible to enforce and will hurt the economy. Others say it will help the economy, because plastic bags manufacturing is mostly automated, and the ban will create jobs for people to produce reusable cloth bags. Cloth bags will need farmers to supply hemp and sisal. Hemp and sisal are biodegradable, unlike the plastic bags, which can take up to 1,000 years to break down, and leave tiny pieces of plastic in the soil.

Paper, plastic, or cloth?

Tanzania is not the only nation to ban plastic bags. Other countries and some U.S. cities have banned them.

Environmentalists started voicing concerns about plastic bags decades ago. Aside from the bags' danger to animals, waterways, and soil, plastic is a non-renewable resource, created from oil. But do they need to be banned? Plastic bag recycling is available in some places, and people are reusing plastic bags more than ever before. This keeps them out of landfills longer. Plastic bags are also inexpensive. Some people prefer plastic bags.

Paper, plastic, or cloth?

Some people switched to paper bags. Paper bags are biodegradable. Paper comes from trees, and trees can be planted and grown, so paper could be considered a renewable resource. Paper bags do not pose a threat to wildlife. On the other hand, there are concerns. Some paper companies cut down old-growth timber, so even with replanting, forests are being harvested at a greater rate than they can be replenished. Paper bags cost more than plastic bags, so some retailers that use them increase the prices of their products to cover the cost of the bags. Still, some people prefer paper bags.

Paper, plastic, or cloth?

Some people are using cloth bags. This is how our ancestors shopped: They took their cloth bags to market with them. Cloth bags can be reused for years, and many are biodegradable. Nowadays, you can buy them at the check-out stands of most major retailers. Although you pay for a cloth bag out of pocket, versus getting a plastic or paper bag for free, in the end many say a cloth bag pays for itself many times over because it does not cause environmental damage that someone must pay to fix—if it can be fixed at all. On the other hand, some people say it is hard to remember to bring them when shopping and that they can carry germs, if not properly laundered.

Paper, plastic, or cloth? What do you say at the check-out, when offered this option?

Other factors affect how "green" your bag is: How much energy and other resources are needed to produce it? How far from you is the bag manufactured? Shipping the bag a long distance uses fossil fuels, which emit carbon dioxide that harms the environment.

Which solution seems the most responsible choice to you: plastic bags, paper bags, or cloth? Maybe you use a combination. Whatever you decide, make a conscious, informed choice. That is the responsible thing to do.