Paper Bags vs Plastic Bags

My post about the environmental impact of plastic bags attracted a fair comment about the impact of paper bags on the environment. It seems that many people are using paper bags in the belief that they are better for the natural environment than plastic bags.

Unfortunately, that’s not necessarily true - paper bags are just as bad as plastic bags when it comes to the environment. In fact, some say paper bags are worse than plastic bags.

Some Facts and Figures

Here are some facts and figures according to reusable bags, regarding paper bags vs plastic bags:

  • In 1999, 14 million trees were cut to produce the 10 billion paper grocery bags used by Americans that year alone
  • Paper bags generate 70% more air and 50 times more water pollutants than plastic bags
  • Paper bags use 4 times as much energy to construct compared to a plastic bag
  • Paper bags use 84 times as much energy to recycle compared to a plastic bag
  • Some studies have shown that paper bags generally don’t decompose any faster in landfills than plastic bags. This is apparently due to the lack of water, light and oxygen etc, in landfills.
  • Paper bags use more space in landfills than plastic bags

So, according to these figures paper bags are much worse than plastic bags right? Sure does sound like it.

But then, you also need to take into account things such as size differences and usage patterns between the two bags. For example, paper grocery bags are usually larger than their plastic counter parts, so you need less of them. Also, there are different recycling rates between the two, which will affect the actual damage to the environment.

In 1990, Franklin and Associates completed a life-cycle energy analysis to consider all this and still concluded that the plastic bag was the better bag.

OK, so even though the plastic bag was the better bag, we all know how bad the plastic bag really is on the natural environment!

A Much Better Bag

So, the best thing to do is to avoid paper and plastic bags altogether. Instead, opt for a reusable bag made from a natural fiber.

Ideally, your reusable bag would be large enough to fit 5 times the groceries that a plastic bag would. Also, it would be so durable, that you can continue to reuse it for 2 - 3 years without needing to replace it.

Think of how many plastic or paper bags you’d be saving by doing that!

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37 Responses to “Paper Bags vs Plastic Bags”

  1. How “Eco Friendly” is your Grocery Bag? | Natural Environment Blog Says:

    [...] Environment Blog Blogging for the Natural Environment « Paper Bags vs Plastic Bags Eco Friendly Grocery Bags [...]

  2. Banning Plastic Bags is ‘Bad’ for the Environment? | Natural Environment Blog Says:

    [...] A group called “Coalition to Support Plastic Bag Recycling” is taking Oakland City Council to court because it’s actually trying to do the right thing and ban plastic bags. According to the “coalition”, once the ban is in place, people will turn to paper bags - which are often said to be just as bad or worse than plastic bags. [...]

  3. Battle of the Bags: An interacive Paper vs Plastic website | Natural Environment Blog Says:

    [...] couple of months ago I wrote an article on paper bags vs plastic bags. The general conclusion was that both were almost as bad as each other. Plastic did edge out paper [...]

  4. Eric Says:

    Eric…

    Thanks, this is good stuff. You are spot on….

  5. Nick Says:

    It seems you all may be unfamiliar with alternate options besides paper or plastic… I spent some time recently in New Jersey for a few months and while I was down there I heard of a new business called GoRiseUp.com that sells a vast amount of Recyclable and/or biodegrable shopping bags which is great I also heard they were creating ties to Trex Composite decking as well and will provide services sometime in the future which will collect peoples old plastic bags and recycle them into high quality Composite decks personally I am exteremely exictied about where this company is going and what they bring to the table for future generations… I bought my bags from them I suggest you all do the same they are great, very affordable…

  6. Tiffany Porrata Says:

    Hi. My mame is Tiffany in Los Angeles and I am here to spread the word about how bad any disposeable bags are. I work at Trader Joe’s and we try so very hard to encourage people to buy reuseable bags. Well I am happy to say that more and more people are refuseing paper and plastic bags. But its not enough. I am starting my own company. I make reuseable canvase shopping bags. I got the idea this Christmas because I was so broke I could not buy gifts so I wanted to make something instead. It saved me money and I gave a meaningful gift made with love. The bags came out so good that people started asking me if I sell them. and I thought why not. Now I find myself telling everyone about how bad paper and plastic bags are. I am starting my own movement one plastic bag at a time. Word of mouth is the best advertisment so spread the word. No more bags Just say no

  7. Fiona Says:

    Nick, I understand why you may think that is a good thing, but it is actually only delaying the problem, because at some point that deck made from recycled PLASTIC will also need to be recycled, which of course you would not be able to do since it is made of PLASTIC and then the only other alternative is to dump it creating more of a PLASTIC problem!

  8. Eco Friendly Grocery Bags | Natural Environment Blog Says:

    [...] These eco friendly bags have varying levels of “eco friendliness”, but are typically regarded as being much better than their traditional plastic bag alternative (with the possible exception of paper bags). Despite paper bags having a more eco friendly image, studies show paper bags are less eco friendly than plastic bags. [...]

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  10. Bill Ruesch Says:

    Your comments are skirting some important issues. Paper decomposes and is completely recyclable. Also you forget that much of the paper used in US is now made of reclaimed recycled fiber.

    I don’t disagree with using reusable grocery bags. We use them and love them. When we remember to take them into the store. Everyone should find ways to conserve, I just think paper bashing doesn’t stand up to the truth.

    You may want to see my blog posts on pixels vs. paper http://www.billprintbroker.com

  11. SARA Says:

    This is somewhat impotant, I think this article should answer ore of the question is asking rather than somewhat random!! But overall, good effort I appreciate your hard work and effort put into this and I hope you continue to put more articles about the enviorment! Thank You and hope to read some more again! Thank YOu once again!

  12. Lola Says:

    Hi yal,

    Does the author of this website know where all of these facts came from?

    thanks…

  13. soctane Says:

    OK, plastic bags at the check out counter are one thing, but look at all the other plastic used in packaging…especially food! Why are things like fresh cucumbers, chicken, and lettuce wrapped in plastic? Isn’t there a better alternative?

  14. shepd Says:

    I strongly suggest you run your figures past the report itself. I think they’re way off:

    http://web.mit.edu/mgreytak/MacData/afs.course/3/3.a30/www/refs/Institute%20for%20Lifecycle%20Environmental%20Assessment.pdf

  15. Ian Says:

    The figures are based on the Reusablebags website. I mentioned this report with reference to its conclusion (that plastic bags are the better bag) - not the figures.

    Having said that, it is interesting to see the figures in that report.

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    Very cool site! I hope you don’t mind that I referenced this on my blog but I gave you a link too. Thanks and look forward to more good material.

  17. Chet Forness Says:

    Thanks for this excellent blog.

  18. Replica Bags Says:

    Your blog is so nice .Plastic bag is better than paper bag.

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  20. Cathode Says:

    The worst out of the lot is the reuseable shopping bags that stores now sell you (unless they are selling the completely natural fibre bags). Most reusuable bags sold in stores are made from polypropylene (but sold in the lovely green colour so you can feel like an eco warrior).
    Some polypropylene bags are not ‘made to last’ and will end up in landfill … trouble is they are non-biodegradable!
    The bigger problem is that the poorer quality bags can’t be reused as many times as polyethylene plastic bags. Commissioned by the federal Department of Environment and Heritage, RMIT University’s Centre of Design conducted research on the lifecycles and the environmental impact of plastic, paper and cloth bags between 2002 and 2003.

    The study was based on a household’s shopping of 70 items per week for one year. The researchers found that one green bag, if used for two years, would offset the use of 114 plastic bags. They also found that the production of one polypropylene bag produces 373g of greenhouse gases compared with 16g for one plastic bag.

    Furthermore, when unusable polypropylene bags are dumped into general household waste bins, they meet the same end as their polyethylene cousins. “How environmentally friendly a polypropylene bag is depends on its lifecycle, or how long it can be reused,” says Dr Katherine Dean, research scientist at CSIRO Materials Science and Engineering. “When buried in landfill, polypropylene, like polyethylene, takes hundreds of years to break down.”

    To be exact, polypropylene takes 800 years longer than polyethylene.

    I’d also recommend having a read of this
    http://www.kashum.com/blog/1158880223

  21. shredding Houston Says:

    What people should know is that helping out does not have to be elaborate, we can contribute to waste reduction in simple and practical ways. We all should make an effort in minimizing our wastes at home and even in the office. We just need to gradually integrate practicality in everything that we consume or utilize. Aside from recycling, we can also have our papers and other documents shredded before disposing them. We as individuals can make our own efforts to conserve our utilization of plastic and paper - we just need reinforcement and proper education on recycling.

  22. julia Says:

    I really need to question the issue of paper bags being worse than plastic. It seems to me it is not looking at that whole picture…..Notwithstanding its embodied energy etc etc, paper is compostable. Unless its compostable, plastic does not break down. Biodegradable just means the bits are smaller….If I HAD to choose I would rather see plastic bags banned first. I think it send the wrong message to let people think its better to use a plastic bag over a paper bag…..

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  24. party bags Says:

    Although there are lots of benefits from using plastic bags, its effect will always be of great damage not only to us, but to the environment as well.

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  26. Kayel DeAngelis Says:

    I agree with everything Cathode said above and I have the distinction in saying that I sell those because that is what the market demands. I am an owner at http://www.BagsOnTheNet.com and I personally like paper. The forestry industry is improved tremendously and they plant as much as they can. You can also use paper bags made out of recycled paper. With the higher end shopping bags, you know you’ve all done this, they get used many times, especially if the artwork on the bag is eye-catching. Talk about a moving billboard.
    Good blog.

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  30. replica handbags Says:

    good OK, plastic bags at the check out counter are one thing, but look at all the other plastic used in packaging…especially food! Why are things like fresh cucumbers, chicken, and lettuce wrapped in plastic? Isn’t there a better alternative?

  31. Designer Replica Handbags Says:

    Furthermore, when unusable polypropylene bags are dumped into general household waste bins, they meet the same end as their polyethylene cousins. “How environmentally friendly a polypropylene bag is depends on its lifecycle, or how long it can be reused,” says Dr Katherine Dean, research scientist at CSIRO Materials Science and Engineering. “When buried in landfill, polypropylene, like polyethylene, takes hundreds of years to break down.”

  32. cleaning wipes Says:

    Nice blog ! I like your article and i will really read it again. It will be beneficial Specially for young graduates as well as for fresher. I am in favor of paper bags but there are more demerits available in it. I just want some more information on the qualities of bags. Many paper bags are often not very reusable, so even when they are compostable or biodegradable, they are considered single use. Also keep in mind that compost able bags are really only viable for the handful of cities that have municipal composting plants.. The author makes good points but this argument is often over-simplified.

  33. DVD Replication Says:

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  37. paper bag making machines Says:

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