Paper or Plastic Shopping Bags?

Updated August 2014

It’s the question we hear at least twice a week.  But just how important is this decision?  It’s only a few bags!  According to the Food Marketing Institute, the average American consumer makes about 2 trips to the grocery store each week, spending nearly $30 each trip.  Just how many bags does it take to cart $30 of groceries home?

Well, with double bagging of heavy items and 3 or 4 plastic produce bags we can easily leave the store with 10 bags or so.  That multiplies out to about 20 bags per week and about 1000 bags per year.  In our case, with a four-person household, you can easily double that number.  And that’s only groceries.  We get bags at the clothing store, department store, hardware store and many other places.  OK, so the number is big!

Initially we always got plastic bags because they were much easier to carry.  After all of the bad publicity on plastic bags, we did the politically correct thing and requested paper.  After all, paper comes from trees so it’s a sustainable resource.  It’s also easy to recycle, right?  Well NOT really.

If you step back and look at the entire lifecycle of shopping bags, from creation to disposal, the picture is almost equally bad for both paper and plastic.  We sorted through many articles and reports on this subject and created a chart to summarize the main points. 

The bottom line is that both take a lot of resources to make, generate significant pollution in the process and are fairly difficult to recycle.

But if you recycle, isn’t either OK?
I once thought that you could recycle either type bag, over and over.  Just put the bag in the recycle bin and it’s always remade into another bag, in sort of a continuous cycle.  WRONG, that’s another BIG misunderstanding.  For both paper and plastic, the recycled product is almost always downcycled to a lower quality use.  There are only so many “downcycles” that can occur.  In most cases they are limited to one or two additional uses, then it’s to the landfill.  Recycling is really just reusing one or two additional times, at best.  I was also shocked to learn how little recycling occurs for shopping bags.  According to Californians Against Waste – Bag Facts, “only 10 to 15 percent of paper bags and 1 to 3 percent of plastic bags are recycled.”  So the vast majority of shopping bags end up in the landfill or as litter immediately.

More depressing Bag Facts:

  • “According to the EPA, over 380 billion plastic bags, sacks and wraps are consumed in the U.S. each year.”

  • “Some estimate a plastic bag may take one thousand years to decompose.”

  • "Tree regrowth cannot keep up with the current logging rate."

  • “14 million trees are cut to produce the 10 billion paper grocery bags used by Americans each year.”

  • “It takes more than four times as much energy to manufacture a paper bag as it does to manufacture a plastic bag.”

  • “Paper sacks generate 70% more air pollutants than plastic bags.”

What we really want to show here is that recycling either paper or plastic bags, while better than throwing them away, is still VERY BAD OPTION.  You shouldn’t feel good about just recycling them.

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Are paper bags really that bad?
YES!  First of all, paper requires cutting millions of trees per year.  Then very toxic chemicals and tons of energy are required to make the paper.  This creates considerable water pollution and carbon emissions.  You can think of paper as a sustainable resource but the energy and chemicals used to make it, is NOT.  Paper bag recycling is another issue.  The paper must be re-pulped, which requires chemicals like hydrogen peroxide, sodium silicate and sodium hydroxide.  Recycled paper produces more water pollution than making new paper.  You save a tree on one hand but pollute our air and rivers on the other.  The graphic on the right shows the environmental impact of consuming (making, using and composting) 1000 paper shopping bags.  Our CO2 emissions data comes from the June 2007 edition of The ULS Report, a detailed study on paper, plastic and reusable grocery bags.

So the answer is…
Most of us know that the correct answer is neither.  It makes much more sense to bring a reusable bags.  But less than 5% of US shoppers use them.  So why don’t we do it?  There are many reasons; habit, bag availability and the mindset that just a few bags won’t really make a big difference.  After running the numbers I realized that this really adds up fast.  A few thousand bags per year is a big number!  The habit and bag availability problem is the bigger issue.  I always had trouble remembering to grab the reusable bags when heading for the store.  The solution here was also quite simple.  We got a set of bags for each car, and we keep the bags in the car.  Now even if I walk into the store without the bags, I usually remember inside, and I can quickly run out and retrieve them before checking out.  Another simple practice is to minimize the use of those produce plastic bags.  You can double or triple up on the contents that need them not bag larger produce.

 Any type of reusable bag is a good solution, but some are much better than others.  Look for bags made from natural sustainable materials such as cotton or jute.  Polyester, nylon and polypropylene are synthetic materials made from oil, essentially a plastic.  The natural bags are biodegradable while the various plastic fabrics are not.  Organic cotton bags are by far the best solution, sustainable, biodegradable, no pesticides or chemicals and they last for years.  When you think about the fact that the investment in a dozen reusable shopping bags, will last for many years and save thousands of disposable bags, the cost is minuscule.

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