Ok, I’m whining. But the obsession with paper vs. plastic shopping bags just plain bugs me.

Paper shopping bag - 100As The Oregonian‘s Michael Milstein correctly points out: both paper and plastic have their pros and cons. Plastic has some surprising environmental advantages (more here), but also some unexpected drawbacks, including gumming up recycling equipment — which makes it hard to figure out which option is actually worse in practice. But quite clearly, reusing bags you already have is better than asking for a new one.

The thing is, we already know all this. What’s more, we’ve known it for decades.

And (heresy alert!) the truth is that paper-vs-plastic is an astonishingly low-priority issue.

For example, choosing a bag at the checkout line is typically far less important than choosing what to put in those bags. Meat vs. grains, local vs. non-local, and organic vs. conventional all arguably have bigger environmental consequences than paper vs. plastic. Likewise, the kind of bag you use probably matters far less than what kind of car (if any) you drove to the store, and how far you had to drive it.

Now, I don’t mean to denigrate all the well-intentioned folks who’ve taken an interest in this issue, or to deny that collective, voluntary action can make a difference in the world.

But in my view, the paper-vs-plastic "debate" fascinates us not so much because it’s genuinely important but because it reinforces a common frame about sustainability: that it’s all about personal choices. Paper vs. plastic is one of the few "either-or" environmental decisions that we confront daily. And for some reason we conflate making a choice with making an impact.

Obviously, some choices do make an impact — especially the big ones, about your home or your car or your major appliances. Those big decisions really are worth thinking through. But the daily agonizing over paper vs. plastic is pretty small beer — so small that I worry that all the attention to the choice of paper-vs.-plastic simply dissipates our energies and distracts us from far more important things.

I, for one, wish the whole paper-vs.-plastic "debate" would just go away.