Monday, June 07, 2010

Wax or Plastic?

It is more than twice as expensive to use wax paper sandwich bags than cheap, flimsy plastic bags.

I know this because a friend asked me to do a little research to try to figure out whether wax or plastic was better for the environment.

Well... wax-coated paper is probably better. Both paraffin wax and plastic are created in oil refineries, but paraffin is biodegradable; there are bacteria that can eat it. Polyethylene plastic isn't biodegradable (although it is theoretically recyclable, recycling it isn't economical or practical).

But is spending money on wax paper bags better for the environment compared to spending less money on plastic bags and spending the money you save on something else? 100 fold-top plastic bags cost under $2; 100 wax bags bags cost over $4.

So what if you used the plastic and then donated the $2 to the Nature Conservancy? Would the environmental benefit outweigh the cost of dumping those 100 plastic bags in a garbage dump?

I dug up the Nature Conservancy annual report, and just dividing their budget by the number of acres of land they were able to acquire last year works out to $1,400 per acre. So giving them the $2 you save by buying plastic lets them purchase and preserve 1/700'th of an acre of land, or about 60 square feet. I'm going to buy plastic and donate more.

Of course, maybe buying the plastic bags will make you less environmentally conscious, and you'll spend that $2 doing something environmentally unfriendly like. Or conversely, maybe buying the wax bags will make you more environmentally conscious.

Unfortunately, this research shows the opposite: effect, a green purchase licenses us to say “I’ve done my good deed for the day, and now I can focus on my own self-interest.” I gave at the office, I paid my dues, I did my share — that sort of thing.
So next time you go shopping, buy the cheapest non-organic non-environmentally-friendly option. Then feel guilty about it, and promise yourself that your penance will be writing a nice fat check to your favorite environmental charity.


Philip Brewer said...

These sorts of questions are always very hard to think about, because you never know how big of a circle to take in. If the paper for the waxed bags comes from a sustainably managed forest, does that make a difference?

Two other possibilities:

1) Fold a sheet of waxed paper around your sandwich yourself, rather than buying one that has been manufactured into a bag. (This works quite well, as long as you put your lunch into a bag that's not much bigger than your lunch, so the paper stays folded.)

2) But some plastic reusable sandwich boxes. (And then reuse them for a very long time.)

I ended up going with the latter choice. I'm not sure how many times I'll have to reuse them before I come out ahead (they must use 50 times as much plastic as a flimsy sandwich bag), especially if you include the resources that go into washing them for reuse, but I've got boxes that are 15 years old and have been used hundreds of times. I bet I'm ahead of the game, at least on those.

Alisa V. Brewer said...

Re: plastic boxes: yes, aside from the leaching toxins that are killing you:-)

Gavin Andresen said...

I'm not worried about plastics; I'm sure I'll be dead from something else before they kill me.

I DO like wax paper; much more satisfying to tear off the roll than frigging plastic wrap...

Andrew Bellak said...

Check out local makers of a reusable sandwich bag:

go to and select the link for fundraising.

This shows you the sandwich bag product. The 'loveybum' is a reusable cloth diaper cover.

Of course the question is what is the net energy/net toxin effect of such a product vs. the wax paper that one hand wraps.