Do you ever help your parents shop for groceries? Although it might seem like a boring task, helping shop for food is one way to influence what's on the menu in the coming week. It also gives you the opportunity to do a good deed for your parents when you help carry groceries into the house and put them away.

Before you get out of the store, though, you're likely to be faced with an important decision: paper or plastic. Yes, we're talking about the bags used to transport your groceries from the store to home. You might even see some people bringing their own special bags from home to use.

So what's the big deal? Does it even matter what type of bag you use to carry your groceries home? People who care deeply about the environment will tell you that it does indeed matter. In fact, it's just one small example of a decision you make on a regular basis that can have either a positive or a negative impact on our precious planet Earth.

Think about what happens to most of those plastic bags that are used to carry groceries home. Although a few may be set aside to be used around the house, most of them end up in the trash can. Eventually they make their way to the nearest landfill where they stick around for a long, long time.

Paper or other natural materials are biodegradable, which means they naturally break down over the course of a few days, months, or years into substances that can be absorbed into the soil and recycled naturally. Plastic, on the other hand, can take hundreds, if not thousands, of years to biodegrade. This means plastic that gets thrown away will stick around for many generations, taking up precious space in landfills and possibly polluting the environment.

If you look around you, plastic is everywhere. Much of this plastic is meant to be used over and over again for a long time. Unfortunately, much of the plastic we use, however, has a very short lifespan.

In fact, experts estimate that as much as 50% of the plastic we use is only used once before it is thrown away. Examples of such plastic include plastic grocery bags and plastic water and soda bottles. Each year, humans throw away enough plastic to circle Earth four times!

We only have one Earth, and it's only so big. Given the amount of plastic waste we generate and how long it sticks around, it's easy to see why environmentally-minded citizens feel it's important to reduce our plastic waste as much as possible.

So how can you do that? It's probably impossible to eliminate plastic from our lives, but there are important steps we can take to reduce the amount of plastic we use. At the grocery store, opt for the paper bag or, better yet, bring your own reusable shopping bags with you.

When you're thirsty, don't reach for a plastic bottle of water. Instead, reach for a glass out of the cabinet and fill it with water from your tap. If you do happen to need to use plastic bottles from time to time, don't throw them away. Recycle them!

Although there's plastic all around us, there doesn't have to be. Look for plastic alternatives whenever possible. When there's no reasonable alternative to plastic, be sure to recycle the plastic you use rather than simply throwing it in the trash.

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