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Are Paper or Plastic Bags Better?

Updated on March 7, 2015
stephhicks68 profile image

Stephanie is always looking for ways to lighten her carbon footprint. She enjoys sharing eco-friendly tips and ideas.

Should You Choose Paper or Plastic Bags?

You've just loaded up your cart with groceries for the week and now comes the most important question... No, its not how you're going to pay for all those goods, but how will you carry them home?

Paper or plastic? The checker at most stores will ask you when you get to the front of the line. Do you really know which answer is most environmentally-sound? Time for a little 101 on the greenest grocery bags.

Did you know that both paper and plastic are roughly equal with regard to damage to the environment? In the end, however, more people are probably recycling paper grocery bags than plastic bags. This needs to change - and fast! Plastic bags are not biodegradable. They clog up our landfills and, worse, make an awful mess when people litter. Not only are they unsightly when seen clinging to trees or wrapped around shrubs, but they can suffocate small animals just as easily as they can human beings. Its even worse when they get into our lakes, river and oceans. Grocery stores take back plastic bags. Some municipal recycling services are starting to do the same. Be a responsible citizen and do not throw away your plastic bags. Never EVER litter!

So, in answering the question - paper or plastic - do you know all the facts?

Plastic shopping bags can be recycled, but not everyone does so
Plastic shopping bags can be recycled, but not everyone does so | Source

Paper or Plastic - Part One: Paper

It takes considerably more energy to create a paper bag, than it does a plastic bag. Some estimates are in the range of 4:1 of paper vs. plastic. Of course, we all know what paper bags are made of too.... trees!In order to create the paper pulp that was made into approximately 10 billion grocery bags (year 2000 figures), about 15 million trees were harvested. The loss of trees impacts the environment in a number of ways, most significantly with respect to greenhouse gas absorption. The fewer trees there are, theoretically, the greater the impact of greenhouse gases on global warming.

Recently, the grocery store chain Whole Foods made the switch to 100% recycled paper bags, choosing to eliminate plastic bags entirely. Some customers and consumers are not entirely sure that this was the right environmental decision. Even creating bags from recycled paper takes more energy than making plastic bags. And, they are bulkier and heavier to ship. All of this energy burns fossil fuels, which is released into the atmosphere.

More on the Paper or Plastic Debate

Buy Your Own Reusable Shopping Bags

Paper or Plastic - Part Two: Plastic

So, we're not cutting down trees to produce plastic bags. That's a plus into the benefits column. But, they're made from oil. And that's a negative.

Back into the plus column, they are much lighter and easier to ship, so the costs of transporting them, and the fuel it takes to drive them across the country to all your favorite grocery stores is less. That is environmentally favorable. So where are we in the paper or plastic debate?

One of the biggest problems was mentioned above - people do not recycle plastic bags. Estimates are that, with paper bags, at least 15-20% are recycled. That drops to a dismal 3% rate for plastic bags. And you know where they go. If they're not in landfills, they are blowing around parking lots and vacant lots. We've all seen them.

In a landfill, the plastic bags will last up to 1000 years. Thrown away into the fragile natural environment, they can release toxic particles into water and soils when they begin to break down.

Of course, it is a global problem. Australia, South Africa, India, China, Italy, Bangladesh and Taiwan have banned, or instituted partial bans on plastic bags to combat the serious environmental threats they pose. Ireland imposes a tax on each bag, which is another way to slow down their use (after the tax, consumers' usage dropped 90%).

In March 2007, the City of San Francisco was the first major United States city to ban plastic bags, and Oakland soon followed suit.

Whole Foods' Decision

Buy Reuseable Bags

You may never have to answer the question of paper or plastic again, if you buy some reusable canvas bags, like the one pictured to the right.

Admittedly, I have been resistant, given my large family and frequent trips to the grocery store. But who says you have to put everything into just one or two bags? Buy a whole bunch of them and keep them in the back of your car. My local Fred Meyer store offers them at a discount and advertises that each black canvas bag will fit the equivalent amount of groceries of 2-3 plastic bags.

Even if you are an avid recycler, you will feel so much better doing your part for the environment.

The choice between paper or plastic is not a clear one, but the choice against them is.

© 2008 Stephanie Hicks

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    • aboutaustralia profile image

      aboutaustralia 

      5 years ago from Newcastle, New South Wales

      I like the fact that Ireland imposed a tax on plastic bags and the useage rate dropped by 90%. Well done Ireland! I personally think they should be outlawed considering the toxic effects on the environment as they break down. Perhaps we should be going back in time and making all our bags from products that break down in the environment such as leather. There is an article here: http://wholesale-australia.com/wholesale-bags/ about bags that I thought some of your readers might be interested in. Thanks for a great hub!

    • Terry.Hirneisen profile image

      Terry.Hirneisen 

      7 years ago from Shenandoah Valley

      Cat litter needs to be disposed unless you dispose of the cats. We get plastic bags to use for cat litter. Not the best but I do not have a better solution. Cannot flush the litter.

      Better Idea??

    • Ironracer profile image

      Ironracer 

      7 years ago from St. Louis, MO

      Great article! I've always wondered what the correct answer is...guess, there really isn't one, other than a reusable bag!

    • nicomp profile image

      nicomp really 

      7 years ago from Ohio, USA

      Sigh. I'm out.

    • stephhicks68 profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Hicks 

      7 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      About as much energy as it takes to respond to silly comments like that one. Who launders their canvas grocery bags? Not me. But if you really want to, you can hand-wash them in cold water and allow them to drip dry. Minimal energy and resources...

    • nicomp profile image

      nicomp really 

      7 years ago from Ohio, USA

      What's the energy difference between a canvas bag and a paper bag? The cost of laundering the canvas bag has to be included; that requires water and energy as well.

    • stephhicks68 profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Hicks 

      7 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Yes, but let's save the energy that it takes to process and transport paper bags that are not re-used and instead use canvas bags over and over again. We're not just talking about whether bags can be recycled. We're talking about whether we should engage the recycling process and the energy that takes, too!

    • nicomp profile image

      nicomp really 

      7 years ago from Ohio, USA

      "So, we're not cutting down trees to produce plastic bags."

      But, don't we purpose-grow the trees to make paper bags? And aren't trees renewable?

    • U Neek profile image

      U Neek 

      8 years ago from Georgia, USA

      Excellent points on manufacturing and shipping. We have to think beyond just the biodegradability factor. I think I'll recycle some old jeans and make some bags!

    • profile image

      BeGreen 

      8 years ago

      Paper or Plastic? I have the perfect answer ... www.PaperNorPlastic.com I've been using their Paper Nor Plastic bags for years. They are the best ever. Helping the environment and keeping the city clean sounds like a good idea. Say, "Paper Nor Plastic!" with me!!!

    • stephhicks68 profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Hicks 

      9 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Hi LG - I totally agree. I always bring my canvas shopping bags into the store, and I'm sad when I see so many other people declining to do so. I hope our City or the State of Oregon will impose restrictions on plastic or paper bag use. Some retailers are giving a 5 cent discount for each reuseable bag you use. Its a start!

    • LondonGirl profile image

      LondonGirl 

      9 years ago from London

      Great hub. We use neither paper nor plastic bags. We have a rucksack, and a cotton shoulder bag, depending on how much stuff we get. As we either walk or cycle to the supermarket, it's far more comfortable with these bags than the plastic carriers, anyway.

    • stephhicks68 profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Hicks 

      9 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Hi Frieda,

      I am so thrilled each time I bring my canvas bags into the store. I'm probably up to about 50% now (and I have no less than 12 canvas bags in my trunk). One of these days, they will be required everywhere.... I certainly hope!

      Steph

    • Frieda Babbley profile image

      Frieda Babbley 

      9 years ago from Saint Louis, MO

      So true. I remember the excitement of getting to choose "will that be paper or plastic?" Found out no diference environmentally. By the time canvas bags came out, I bougt a lot, but still used plastic because I had so many reuses for them. Great information and loved your videos. Great topic.

    • profile image

      MC556 

      9 years ago

      yes you are right steph about the reusable bags because it doesn't come from the trees or the environment. the paper came from the trees but you can still plant more trees after you get the paper. but the plastic can destroy the environment if you burned it.it wil destroy the environment

    • profile image

      jess 

      10 years ago

      I would like to know where you got all of this information. Was this through and offical study?

    • stephhicks68 profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Hicks 

      10 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Rochelle, I am seeing more and more stores offer a discount for customers that use the reusable bags. The nylon lightweight ones like you have are so portable and easy to pack. Washable, as you say, and easy to see what is inside. I really hope that people get over the relatively small cost of the bags at the outset and think of it as a donation to save the planet. Plus, over time, the savings earned with 10 cents here and 10 cents there could end up paying for the bags!

      So glad to hear that you've gone Green! I hope that many others follow suit.

    • Rochelle Frank profile image

      Rochelle Frank 

      10 years ago from California Gold Country

      I started using reusable bags a couple of months ago. Yes it was hard to remember them at first-- If i managed to get them in the car I would forget to take them in the store.

      The bags I ordered from resusablebags.com are a black nylon mesh, super strong and lightweight. The best thing about them is, when empty the stuff into a a tiny attached pouch that also has a little loop on it. I can keep 6 or eight of them together on a little key loop that I can also clip onto the store cart handle.

      They hold a lot. The checkers and baggers always comment on them, and you save 10 cents each time you use one. (one thought they were black lingeree.)

      Another nice thing about them-- you can see through them so when you are ready to unpack , you can tell what's in the bag. They were a bit pricey-- but I doubt that they will ever wear out. And of course, washable.

      I'm very pleased with them, now that I have the habit. Hope more people start using them.

    • stephhicks68 profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Hicks 

      10 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Ervin, you are right! Plastic bags are being used, discarded and not recycled at an alarming rate. They are no better than paper bags. Reuseable bags require but a small investment (think about a donation to save a forest or stop global warming). I carry a large handbag and fold mine right in next to my umbrella. Another handy alternative is to simply replace your canvas shopping bags in the trunk of your car after you have unloaded your groceries. Then they are always there for your next trip. With practice you can get there!

    • solarshingles profile image

      solarshingles 

      10 years ago from london

      Billions of plastic bags are used and wasted in Britain, every year. There are also many activities, which try to lower the consumption of free plastic bags, but until now all these good hopes were not successful enough. I am trying to use reusable bags, even though, I simply forget them at home far too often):

    • stephhicks68 profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Hicks 

      10 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Thanks CW! I totally agree about the plastic bags reproducing themselves! LOL! Great ideas for reusing them. I recycle mine in our huge bin that the City of Bend has now provided. Lots of room for us to be even better in our green efforts.

    • Constant Walker profile image

      Constant Walker 

      10 years ago from Springfield, Oregon

      Wow Steph, you're just a green expert, aren't you? Impressive!

      I have one of those grocery bags that was made of recycled plastic boottles. I got it free in the mail... and I use it. It's really strong! But, I still wind-up with paper and plastic bags, even though when asked I always say paper. I think the plastic bags are a-sexual and breeding by themselves... So, I reuse paper bags for recycling (fitting, ay?), and reuse plastic bags for bathroom trash can liners and picking up dog poo.

    • himalayan profile image

      himalayan 

      10 years ago

      If we carry the resuable bags for shopping then there is no need to put things in plastic bags. This is the great idea to keep yourself away from plastic.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish 

      10 years ago from USA. Member of Asgardia, the first space nation, since October 2016

      I found the reusable bags at the Target near me and both sizes are only 99 cents!

      Kroger and Giant Eagle stared selling their own brand of reusables at 99 cents for 30 days and then raised the price to $4.00 each (and they fall apart on the first load of groceries that are not even too heavey). I've seen some people carrying in their own cardboard boxes and large coolers and picnic baskets to use instead of bags this week!

      Peter - I've heard of these bags you mention and have not seen any here yet. We DO have biodegradable plastic soda bottles.

    • Peter M. Lopez profile image

      Peter M. Lopez 

      10 years ago from Sweetwater, TX

      Nice hub. We accumulate plastic bags in bunches. In Israel, we came across biodegradable plastic, believe it or not. It's used to protect the crops in the fields, and in a month or two it's gone. Maybe that will catch on in grocery stores.

    • stephhicks68 profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Hicks 

      10 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Wonderful! Cgull, the earth thanks you!

    • cgull8m profile image

      cgull8m 

      10 years ago from North Carolina

      Great Hub, I just ordered them at Amazon, from now on I can avoid both paper and plastic. Thanks.

    • robie2 profile image

      Roberta Kyle 

      10 years ago from Central New Jersey

      Good hub, steph. I'm a re-usable girl myself--keep two reusables in my car at all times. My biggest problem is that I unload my groceries from them in my house and then forget to put them back in my car LOL--loathe plastic <grumble grumble>

    • stephhicks68 profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Hicks 

      10 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Cool - 2 sizes of reusable bags? I'll have to check that out, Marye!

      Thanks for your comments too, Lissie! Yes, there can be quite a variation from country to country and region to region!

      Zsuzsy - thank you so much! I agree! Let's get the word out. Great idea HubPages on the topic. Thanks all for reading and commenting!

    • Marye Audet profile image

      Marye Audet 

      10 years ago from Lancaster, Texas

      I get my reusable bags at Target...They have 2 sizes and the smaller size zips into a small package..the larger size snaps into a flat square..I just love them. Great hub

    • Lissie profile image

      Elisabeth Sowerbutts 

      10 years ago from New Zealand

      Gosh u can still get paper bags - they disapeared Down Under at tleast 15 - 20 years ago - its plastic or reusable. The insulated reusable are great in country where 30C is not uncommon - even with a/c frozens can melt on the 20min drive home. They are threatening to bring in a govt charge on plastic bags here but I think its nuts - if I didn't get the plastic bags I would have to buy bags to put the rubbish out in - how silly is that! The plastic bags I reuse all the time and rarely throw out.

    • Zsuzsy Bee profile image

      Zsuzsy Bee 

      10 years ago from Ontario/Canada

      Reusable all the way. We need to shout it from every venue possible.

      Great hub, green living and the eco-movement is very close to my heart so I can only cheer about even one convert.

      regards Zsuzsy

    • Stacie Naczelnik profile image

      Stacie Naczelnik 

      10 years ago from Seattle

      We have reusable bags. I love them. They are stronger, and I know to only buy as much as will fit into our bags.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish 

      10 years ago from USA. Member of Asgardia, the first space nation, since October 2016

      Very nice hub.

      I have crocheted several grocery bags, and use paper bags as well when needed. Some stores do not use paper bags, though, and I don't like that.

      Kroger is printing something about "greener" on their plastic bags - they seem just thinner to me - and made their bags green in color as well. I don't trust it.

    • stephhicks68 profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Hicks 

      10 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Hey, that is a great idea - points for using a canvas bag. It would sure be great to see more stores implement similar programs!

    • Uninvited Writer profile image

      Susan Keeping 

      10 years ago from Kitchener, Ontario

      I use a canvas bag, most of the time. My supermarket gives you points every time you use it, the points can be used to buy groceries. I don't find paper helpful because I have muscular problems and need a handle.

      Very informative hub, thanks :)

    • stephhicks68 profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Hicks 

      10 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      I am so glad that this hub is helping (for my decisions too!) Thanks PenmanZee!

    • PenmanZee profile image

      PenmanZee 

      10 years ago

      Honestly, the plastic drives me crazy. I don't know what to do with them afterwards. I am now informed about paper too. I'll continue to decline the bags whenever I can. Thanks Steph.

    • stephhicks68 profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Hicks 

      10 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Thanks Bob - I always thought paper was best, so I learned something too!

    • Bob Ewing profile image

      Bob Ewing 

      10 years ago from New Brunswick

      a good exploration of an ongoing debate, I like the reuseable approach.

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