Paper or plastic? Neither, if you Worry About the Planet.

This week I’m going to answer a question that many moms get asked at least once a week.


Imagine the usual scenario:  Your little darling is screaming in the check out aisle.  He won’t let go of the magazine that he just grabbed somehow with his sticky hands, and, oh, he just ripped the magazine.  Wonderful.  And he NEEEEEDS that chocolate bar, and also the cough drops hanging from that clip.  You are keeping a smile pasted on your face.  You try reason.  Fail.  You try ‘toddlerese’.  Fail.  You try bribery, but not even that is working today.  And the lady behind the register has only one question for you…


Paper or Plastic?


If you read my last post on diapers, you won’t be surprised to hear that the right answer to this one is, ”neither”.  It’s painful to hear, but everyone should really carry a reusable bag.   Both paper and plastic bags take raw materials to produce them (e.g trees, petroleum), and even if they are recycled, they take energy to producePaper or plastic


Where I live, in Washington DC, there is a 5 cent fee for disposable bags that goes towards cleaning up the Anacostia River.  Disposable grocery store bags are very uncomon, as a result.  Before the 5 cent charge was in place I could NEVER remember to bring a reusable bag to the grocery store.  Now that the fee is in place, everyone uses re-usable bags and I wouldn’t dream of paying for a disposable bag.  If I forget a bag, I just somehow carry everything in my arms, and limit myself to getting what I can carry, even with a baby in my arms or on my back.  That self inflicted punishment seems to help me remember the bag the next time.  The 5 cent fee seems to be enough to get everyone else to remember a bag too.  The policy is so effective that  we aren’t raising much money for the Anacostia River, but we don’t need as much clean up money since the a big part of what we were cleaning up was plastic bags.


Plastic bag fees are a great example of a successful policy that changes behavior.  As long as polluting is free, people are incentivized to pollute, and they will do it.  On the other hand, if we all have to pay for the cost of cleaning up whatever mess we create then we don’t pollute.  In this case we are asking people to pay 5 cents for a plastic bag to help clean plastic bags from the river.


In the case of climate change we need a policy that puts a price on the greenhouse gas pollution that’s causing climate change.  It’s the same principle, and once we have the guts to do pass climate policy, it will be equally as effective.  It worked for solving the acid rain problem in the US, and the idea of putting a price on carbon pollution is spreading around the world– 31 countries in Europe, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand have done it.  Our neighbors in Mexico just passed comprehensive climate legislation that gets rid of all fossil fuel subsidies too!  They got climate policies the old fashioned way- by using democracy.  We can do it the same way, by periodicaly calling our elected representatives and telling them we want a price on carbon pollution.  The momentum is spreading around the world, and together, there is no question in my mind we can use that to get action on climate change in the US too!





About Keya Chatterjee

Keya Chatterjee is a Climate Change and Environment expert, and Director for International Climate Policy at World Wildlife Fund. Her work focuses on the environmental crisis facing the planet, and what policies and measures should be taken to ameliorate the most catastrophic impacts of climate change. Keya’s commentary on climate change policy and sustainability issues has been quoted in dozens of media outlets including USA Today, CNN, and NBC Nightly News. Keya resides in Washington, DC with her husband Andrew and her son Siddharth. She enjoys practicing yoga, biking, and spending time with her friends and family. She is working on a book about how to have a baby without raising your carbon footprint to be published in 2013 by Ig Publishing. Keep up with Keya’s writing on the nexus of climate change activism and motherhood at


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