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:
...in 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.