Battle of the Bag: Paper or Plastic?

The difficulty with the plastic versus paper debate is that it is overwhelmingly complex.

The standoff at the end of the checkout line, between paper and plastic, has endured for decades. To make our green choices even more complicated, there’s a new sheriff in town: the reusable bag. Faced with all of these options, how do you make the right choice? While we all know that plastic is not an environmentally friendly choice, are paper or reusable bags really better?

The difficulty with the plastic versus paper debate is that it is overwhelmingly complex. There are so many things to consider, from manufacturing, to reuse, to disposal. Even small actions, like how many times you reuse a bag, can make a big difference in its overall environmental footprint. Impact is also somewhat subjective; part of it really depends on which environmental issues you care most about. For instance, while plastic bags can have a lower carbon footprint than paper bags, they can be much more destructive to wildlife.

Traditionally, we have framed the plastic versus paper conversation toward the end of a bag’s useful life. Within this context, paper bags have had a better record of recyclability and degradation in the environment. This may be why the paper bag earned its more eco-friendly reputation. But this status isn’t necessarily justified.

Manufacturing Paper Bags
The process to make a paper bag is actually quite arduous and has a fairly large environmental impact. Paper bags start out as trees. Each year Americans use
about ten billion paper bags, causing millions of trees to be cut down. Once a plot of land has been identified and trees have been marked, the deforestation begins. Depending on the logging process, this can have major environmental impacts. Deforestation contributes to things like habitat destruction, poor water quality, and climate change. Every year the world loses a portion of forest larger than Vermont and New Hampshire combined. Considering that thirty percent of the world’s land area is forest, and it takes decades for forests to reestablish, any loss of forests is enough to raise concern.
After the trees have been harvested, they are dried, chipped, and made into pulp. Each pound of pulp requires about three pounds of wood chips. Throughout this process a large amount of fossil fuels and chemicals are used, in addition to an extraordinary amount of water. While some bags are made from recycled paper, the majority of bags have some amount of virgin paper. In addition, recycled paper also requires resources to sort, transport, and remake into pulp.
The environmental impact for transporting paper is sizeable. Paper bags are much bulkier and weigh significantly more than plastic bags, making paper bags much more inefficient to transport. In fact, the Environmental Literacy Council states that it takes approximately seven trucks to ship an equivalent number of paper bags for every one truck of plastic bags.
Manufacturing Plastic Bags
You may have been surprised by the environmental impacts of paper bags, but you probably won’t be as surprised by that of plastic bags. That’s partly because it has been relatively easy to highlight the negative characteristics of the plastic bag through media. When you see a dirty plastic bag on the ground in a breath- taking forest scene, it’s easy to draw the conclusion that this bag doesn’t belong in the environment.
Plastic bags are made from petroleum products, specifically oil. Though oil is infamous for being an environmental villain, it’s not the only part of the process to consider. Plastic bags begin as a resin pellet, produced by a refinery. The pellet is heated, stretched, and cut to make bags. The most energy intensive part of this process is actually the electricity needed to heat the plastic. Depending on where the manufacturing plant is located, this electricity is likely coming from burning coal. While plastic manufacturing requires less energy and almost half the water of paper bags, it also introduces harmful chemicals into our atmosphere and water systems.
So, Which is Better?
While plastic can often have a lower carbon footprint in the manufacturing stage because it’s lightweight and less resource-intensive to create, the playing field becomes much more level (and complicated) when the bags leave the grocery store and enter your home. This part is where a lot is left to you and how you decide to reuse and dispose of your bags.
The first way to change the impact of your bag is to reuse it. The more you reuse a bag, the smaller its footprint becomes. Once you are done with your bag, the next choice you make is also important: recycling, composting, or trashing the bag. One of the best options for disposal— which sets the paper bag far ahead of plastic—is composting. Plastic bags are not compostable. In fact, the plastic bag is notorious for escaping landfills and floating into the wilderness where it can last for centuries without breaking down.

The best option for plastic after the end of its useful life is recycling. However, plastic also loses out to paper for recyclability. Most plastic is actually “down cycled.” Because it is made from strands, and those strands continue to get smaller and smaller as they are broken and remade, plastic often has to be recycled into lesser quality products. Also, once you recycle your plastic bag, a lot can happen to it. It could be remade into something, it could go to the landfill, or, in some cases, it could be sent overseas and incinerated. All of these options change the overall environmental consequences of your bag.

The very last option is throwing your bag away. No matter what type of bag you have, when it goes into a landfill the conditions are ideal for preservation, and the bag will sit there for decades, centuries, or even millennia without decomposing.
Compostable Bags
While paper and plastic make up the vast majority of bags at the checkout line, compostable bags are starting to creep into the mix. This article won’t focus much time on bioplastics. However, it’s important to note that most bioplastic bags are made from conventional corn. This corn is often genetically modified and requires huge amounts of petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides. Combined with the fact that most of these bags aren’t truly compostable, nor can they be recycled, compostable bags can be one of the worst choices.
Reusable Bags
Another option is the colorfully branded reusable bags made of cotton, recycled plastic, or a combination of materials. The popularity of reusable bags seems to have reached all corners of the shopping industry, from grocery stores to large box stores.
Reusable bags come at us from all directions: they are sold at the checkout line, they are given to us as gifts, and they are handed out for free as marketing items. Many of us are becoming collectors of reusable bags.
While reusable bags can be your greenest option, it’s important to recognize that these bags are not without negative effect. A lifecycle study published by the Environment Agency of the UK found that you need to reuse cotton bags 173 times before the carbon footprint is better than a plastic bag that was reused once.
This number isn’t surprising if you consider what it takes to make a cotton canvas bag.
A big part of the problem comes from the production of cotton. According to the World Wildlife Fund, cotton crops make up 2.4 percent of the world’s agricultural land but account for 24 percent of all insecticides purchased. Cotton can also be a water guzzler. Producing enough cotton to make a t-shirt can take over 5,000 gallons of water. These statistics refer to conventional and genetically engineered cotton; choosing organic cotton can significantly improve the insecticide numbers.
While 173 uses may seem like a lot, you’ll easily exceed that number in a year if, in addition to shopping, you use your reusable bags for activities like carrying your lunch to work or bringing your clothes to the beach.
The Impact is in the Bag
While the winner of the battle of the bags is still the reusable bag, it’s important to remember that all bags raise concerns. In this article we haven’t even scratched the surface regarding their effects on local water supplies, worker conditions, wildlife, and so on. With so many variables at play, it’s difficult to draw a definitive conclusion.
In reality, if you’re looking to lessen the environmental impact of your shopping trip, you need to look beyond the distraction of the bag debate. The bag comprises less than five percent of your total grocery visit footprint. What you put into that bag has a considerably greater impact on the environment.
Though your shopping bag is a highly controllable piece of the puzzle, it is really just a small piece.
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Amanda Charland

Amanda Charland

Amanda Charland is the Co-op's Director of Outreach and Member Services. Contact her at acharland at coopfoodstore dot com.
Amanda Charland

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