Paper Or Plastic? Doesn't Matter

May 7, 1999

By Michael Jessen

The next time the grocery clerk asks whether you want paper or plastic, don’t sweat it. In the great scheme of things, it doesn’t make much difference. What really matters is -- in what kind of vehicle did you drive to the grocery store?

That’s the main message in a just-published book entitled “The Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices: Practical Advice from the Union of Concerned Scientists”.

Authored by Michael Brower and Warren Leon, the new UCS book helps people set personal environmental priorities and distinguish meaningful choices from those that are trivial.

According to the UCS, it’s the first book to take a comprehensive look at the wide range of consumer activities in order to identify which of the things consumers buy and do cause the most environmental damage. It also highlights which of the many possible changes people could make in their personal lives would have the biggest benefit. And it explains when the emphasis should be on changing the policies of governments and institutions rather than on the individual choices of consumers.

The book shows that only a few consumer activities – primarily our use of cars and trucks, consumption of meat, and choice of homes and appliances – are responsible for the vast majority of consumer-related environmental harm.

“Some consumer decisions, like whether to choose paper or plastic grocery bags, are insignificant,” says Leon, Deputy Director of the UCS.

“Driving less and buying a cleaner car are the best things people can do for the environment,” says co-author Brower, a physicist and expert on energy and environmental issues. “Because cars cause so much harm, even modest changes matter.”

The UCS developed an economic model to analyze the impact of household spending on the most significant consumer-related environmental problems: air pollution, water pollution, alteration of natural habitats, and global warming. After grouping 134 consumer spending choices into 50 categories (like furnishings, clothing, computers), the authors discovered that most environmental degradation is linked to just seven categories: cars; meat; produce and grains; household appliances and lighting; home heating and cooling; home construction; and household water and sewage.

The use of cars and light trucks causes more environmental damage than anything else consumers do. In terms of greenhouse gases, just over a quarter of the 14 tons of carbon emissions an average household produces each year is linked to its vehicles. Similarly, much of the air pollution consumers cause comes from cars and light trucks: 22 percent of common air pollutants (ozone, sulfur dioxide, fine particulate matter, and the like) and 46 percent of toxic air pollutants such as benzene and formaldehyde.

Indirectly, vehicles are also a major source of water pollution, from automobile manufacturing, runoff from highways, and oil and gasoline production. They are even responsible for 13 percent of the ecologically harmful land use – for the road network.

The book outlines seven rules for responsible consumption. Give special attention to major purchases – which house or apartment to select and which car, appliances, and heating system to buy.

When the environmental differences between two products are not so large, assume that the more weight, the greater the environmental impact – that’s why it’s more important to recycle a two-pound Sunday newspaper than a one-ounce plastic yogurt container.

Analyze your consumption quantitatively, that is focus on the changes that will make a big difference. If you use 200 gallons of water on your lawn regularly and two gallons brushing your teeth, it’s obvious which activity needs priority for changing.

Don’t feel guilty or worry about unimportant decisions – paper versus plastic bags, cloth versus disposable diapers, spray cans and styrofoam cups used in moderation.

Look for opportunities to be a leader. You’ll be making more effective decisions by being an early adopter of a new technology or environmental practice such as solar hot water heating systems.

Buy more of those things that help the environment such as recycled products and water-saving faucets, toilets, and showerheads.

Think about nonenvironmental reasons for reducing consumption; it will actually make it easier to follow the other six rules.

To help inform consumers about everyday decisions, the UCS developed The Great Green Web Game that moves players through an animated board as they face consumer choices that affect the environment. You can access the game through the Internet at

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