The answer is paper of course. For all of you out there who think it is plastic or absentmindedly answer the nice bag boy/girl at the checkout “oh plastic is fine,” have you ever tried to compost a plastic bag?

Or do you know the half-life of a plastic bag once it enters a landfill? Or better yet, are you aware that according to numerous environmental authorities, over 60 percent of what we put into a landfill is either compostable or recyclable? No worries, out of sight out of mind, right? Now consider it takes over 400 years for one plastic bag just to breakdown into smaller pieces—smaller pieces, not decomposing. Multiply that by how many plastic bags you have shoved into another larger plastic bag, which you have been meaning to recycle, but generally leave under the sink. Now you have a problem.  

The solution is paper bags. Remember the days when we were all tree huggers and crusaded to save our precious forests, forsaking the paper bag, because plastic was cheaper and recyclable? Guess what? Paper recycles itself naturally and is a sustainable resource, unlike a plastic bag. But even better, the best way to prevent the use of any bags is to reuse old ones and bring your own. We use the paper bags from the store as our garbage bags in the house. Again, they decompose quicker and allow for the trash inside doing the same.

If you want to go even further, and you should, composting is the next step. It’s not a crazy new concept. (Your grandparents were most likely doing it before you thought it was vogue and trendy). It is the number one way to reduce the amount of trash you throw out, by over 50 percent. Every piece of organic material, from table scrapes, the undesirable bits and pieces from fruits and vegetables, paper, dog poo, yard waste, you name it, can go to the compost pile, opposed to the trash.  Even urban composting is available, made possible by small self-contained units. But if you have the space, yard composting is easy.  

Many folks believe that compost piles are stinking, fly infested, rodent homes. Not true if you keep your compost well maintained. There are lots of websites that will give you different “recipes” for composting, but below is the method that I have found works best. 

When first starting out make sure that you have a nice pile of either sawdust or dirt to use between each layer of food scraps. I have a pile that is split into two bins. One bin contains my sawdust; the other is for compost (the two bins are about 5’ wide by 8’ deep but you don’t have to go this big). Once you start to compost, use the dirt or sawdust between each layer to keep the flies away. Generally you just keep adding to the pile—even paper bags can be added. All of these elements begin to breakdown naturally and there is generally no smell. 

As far as animals go, my compost attracts skunks and raccoons and the occasional porcupine, but they are simply breaking down the compost even more, redistributing the waste back into the ecosystem. So I say “bon appetite.” Generally you leave the compost alone to do its thing. I like to turn mine with a pitchfork once in the spring and then again in the fall, but other than that, let the bacteria and environment have its way. 

Compost piles pay dividends in 3 to 5 years. You will have the richest fertilizer to use on your garden or flowerbed. There is no safer fertilizer in the world; it is organic, and you have significantly reduced your carbon footprint, which helps reduce carbon emissions. 

Because we compost, we have one 20-gallon trashcan. My wife and I only take the trash out once a month. Think about it. Do the math. I promise you that instead of taking the trash out once a week, you will be doing it less and less. You can even repurpose your unused trashcans into compost buckets or storage for your sawdust.

There is more work involved in the composting process, and I know that as lazy Americans it much easier to just throw it away and forget about it, because “it’s not my problem.” But try caring for one iota about the future for all of us, and your kids and their kids, and maybe you will think twice when asked “paper or plastic.”