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Paper or Plastic Bags? Reusable Bag, Please

Paper or Plastic Grocery Bags

Paper or plastic? The right answer for the environment is unquestionably "neither" - a reusable bag, preferably made of recycled material is the superior answer in every case.

There was a time when the environmentally conscious were convinced that paper was the more ecological choice, but the tide seems to have turned. As for plastic, well, its popularity remains in question, and some communities have even banned the ubiquitous plastic shopping bag. We can battered back and forth with pro's and con's supporting one side or the other, but the answer seems so clear the controversy seems to be a wasted effort.

Plastic grocery bags were introduced in the 1970s. Businesses preferred them due to their lower cost, lighter weight, and ease of storage. Consumers have come to rely on their additional uses found on the homefront, such as trash can liners, lunch sacks, or even pet waste disposal bags. According to the plastics industry, most Americans re-use their plastic bags at least one time.

Now let us list some pro's and con's for paper and plastic:



  • More Likely to be Recycled - EPA data indicates approximately 20% of paper bags reach recycling programs.
  • Generally Hold More Goods - Fewer bags may be required as paper bags can handle more items.
  • Biodegradable - Paper will naturally biodegrade, while plastic does not, although typical landfill conditions may stifle the natural process.
  • Production Does Not Require Petroleum - Harsh chemicals are not required to produce paper bags.


  • Require Millions of Trees to Produce - The loss of trees results in more greenhouse gasses being released into the environment, since they no longer are there to absorb them.
  • Manufacturing Paper Requires More Energy - As well as generating more environmental pollutants, a paper bag requires at least four times the energy to produce than a plastic one, while generating 50 times more water and 70 times more air pollutants in the process.
  • More Methane is Emitted in Landfills - Methane is emitted as a paper bag decomposes.



  • Lighter and Easier to Carry - Plastic bags always have handles and are rarely overloaded with goods.
  • Utilizes Less Space in Landfills - Plastic bags account for 9-12% of waste volume, while paper utilizes approximately 50% of landfill volume.
  • Uses Less Energy to Recycle - Pound for pound, plastic uses 91% less energy than paper to recycle.
  • Overall Global Environmental Effect is Less - According to NRDC studies, plastic bags create less global warming pollution and a lower impact on biodiversity and water. Data indicates that plastic bags use 40% less energy to manufacture and not even 4% of the amount of water required to produce paper bags. Furthermore, plastic bags generate nearly 80% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than composted paper bags.
  • Easier and Less Costly to Transport - Fuel costs are significantly less to deliver paper versus plastic inventory to stores, in fact only about 15% of the cost of the same shipment quantity of paper bags.


  • Plastic Bags are Rarely Recycled - Of approximately 4 billion plastic bags disposed of annually throughout the world, less than 5% are actually recycled, mostly due to the difficulty of the process.
  • Plastic in Landfills Stays Forever - Plastic bags do not biodegrade, so although they take less space they are permanent residents within the earth.
  • Petroleum is Required to Produce Plastic - Oil is required in large amounts to make plastic bags - the last thing we want to need more of. Additionally, their manufacture produces hazardous waste products.
  • Harmful to Wildlife and Marine Life - Stray bags kill as many as one million sea creatures annually - if ingested, the bags can block the stomach and cause starvation. They additionally can clog sewer pipes and cause stagnant, unhealthful water for humans.

Clearly, the paper versus plastic controversy has been debated and studied at length. The bottom line is that we do have a better alternative - reusable grocery bags. Studies indicate that regardless of what material your reusable shopping bag is made of, it will be better for the planet than any type of disposable bag.

But if you have to choose between paper or plastic assess the comparative environmental impacts of each material. Both plastic and paper bags impact the environment, using natural resources and contributing to greenhouse gas production in their production, transportation, and disposal. The studies specifically associated with grocery bags generally conclude that paper bags produce less of a litter problem, but that plastic bags consume less energy and water and produce less pollution, including greenhouse-gas emissions. So, it is a choice of the lessor of two evils.