Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Paper or Plastic

The very familiar grocery store checkout question is “paper or plastic?” The correct answer, as we all should know, is “neither – got my own bag”. That is, we should bring our reusable bags. However, we will still sometimes go to the store and not have a bag. So the question is still “paper or plastic?”

The answer is not so obvious and may be surprising. Let’s consider the various environmental problems of bags and how plastic and paper bags compare. I have taken information from an Environmental Literacy Council article (

According to the article, plastic bags take less energy than paper bags to manufacture. Much of the energy of paper manufacturing is in the pulping stage, in which fiber from trees is cooked in a mixture of chemicals to turn it into paper stock.

Plastic and paper have to be transported from the plastic plant or paper mill to the bag manufacturing plant. The bags then have to be transported to the stores. Paper is heaver and takes more room than the equivalent amount of plastic. According to Environmental Literacy, it takes seven times as many trucks to transport paper compared to plastic bags.

One assumed advantage of paper bags is that they will degrade when exposed to moisture and air. However, in a properly designed and operated landfill nothing degrades. And even if paper bags did degrade, they would not simply go away. When a pound of paper degrades, there is still a pound of degraded paper taking up room in the landfill.

Compared to paper, plastic bags take up less space in a landfill than paper.

Plastic does have two problems, however. First, if plastic bags get into the sounds or ocean, fish and other aquatic animals may choke on them. Second, plastic bags are light weight and can blow in the wind, often landing in trees where they will remain for days. Paper bags, being heaver, will usually just lie on the side of the road.

Plastic bags should not be used on the beach or around sounds, Even if you intend to take the bag home with your trash, a gust of wind may still take it away. Also, if you have a habit of tossing your used grocery bags out of the car window, please use paper. But if you use your grocery bags as garbage can liners or other purposes, plastic is best.

The best way to carry groceries is reusable bags. Most grocery stores sell them, and they are easier to carry than either paper or plastic. But if you find yourself at the store without your reusable bags, it is best to get plastic bags and to be sure to reuse the bags for garbage cans or other uses. And do not use plastic near the beach.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

General Assembly "Long Session" Over

The General Assembly has adjourned and gone home. They will not be back in session until May 12, 2010 when the "short session" begins. Our legislature meets every odd numbered year for the "long session" that starts at the end of January and usually lasts until mid-summer of that year. Every even year they meet for the "short session" that lasts from mid May until late summer.

There have been environmental victories and losses. In addition to the good and bad bills that were passed, many bills, good and bad, were not acted on.

A few of the highlights of this year's session are:

Falls Lake Protection
SB 1020 will instruct the Environmental Management Commission to give credit to government and owners for certain protective measures taken before the rules are adopted. It will impose, by law, certain protections for the lake before the EMC adopts the permanent rules. It will also extend the deadline for the Department of Environmental Resources to write the permanent rules from July 1, 2009 until January 15, 2011. It has been approved by both Houses and will be presented to the governor for her approval.

Energy Conservation Incentives
HB 512 will provide tax incentives for the use of geothermal heat pumps and extends the sunset of other energy conservation incentives by five years until January 1, 2016. It has been approved by both Houses and will be presented to the governor for her approval.

HB 1389 will allow authorize cities and counties to establish loan programs to finance the installation of renewable energy sources or efficiency improvements that are affixed to buildings. This bill is often known as the "Cities First" bill. It has been approved by both Houses and will be presented to the governor for her approval.

HB 148 will allow Triangle and Triad counties to raise sales tax by 1/2 cent and allow other counties to increase sales tax by 1/4 cent to provide for rail and bus transit. The bill has been passed by both the House and Senate and presented to the Governor for her approval.

The result of other actions with environmental consequences will be covered later.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Wind Power

One issue that divides the environment community is wind power. We need more renewable energy to replace the use of coal. On that almost everyone agrees. One source of renewable energy is wind power. However, there are serious environment consequences to the use of wind turbines.

The most well known and discussed problem is bird strikes, when the blade of a turbine strikes a bird. While that remains a problem, particularly in areas where bird migration paths will cross a line of wind turbines, it is much less of a problem than before because modern wind turbines are designed to use slower turning blades, and the structures do not have parts that would allow birds to perch.

A less well known and studied problem is the effect on bird habitat. One of the most attractive locations for wind turbines is mountain ridges in the western mountains of NC. However, many of these same ridges are used by raptors and other birds which make use of the updrafts to soar along the ridge looking for food. Much more needs to be learned about the effect of the wind turbines on these birds. Will they coexist with the turbines or will they seek other areas for their soaring and hunting.

Another area that has the sufficient wind is the coastal sound area of eastern NC. However, it is also an important area for birds. There are birds that fish in some areas of the sounds and roost on shore nearby. If a line of wind turbines is between the fishing area and the roosting area, the birds may move to a different, less desirable, area. Again, this needs more study before we allow wind turbines in our sound areas.

We do need more renewable energy. However, it is estimated that, fully developed, wind turbines in the mountain areas will produce only 800 MW of power when the wind is blowing. That much power will require at least 400 wind turbines. And the wind doesn’t always blow, even in the mountains. By comparison, some of the newer coal fired power plants produce over 2,000 MW, even when the wind doesn’t blow.

We certainly support the increased use of non-polluting renewable energy. Wind will supply some of our renewable energy. However, before we rush to site wind turbines on mountain ridges, coastal sounds, or other sensitive areas, we need more study of the effects on wildlife.