Bags — Paper, Plastic, or Reusable?

Before deciding to migrate to reusable bags, we had amassed a collection of paper and plastic bags over the years. Paper grocery bags were reused to carry stuff or as trash can liners. Paper shopping bags with handles were useful for consolidating and carry smaller items, like holiday gifts. Single-use plastic bags were reused to hold dirty laundry while traveling or to carry damp or dirty items. Of that collection, several paper shopping bags and a handful of plastic bags remain.

Our First Reusable Bags

Sierra Club Reusable BagsA few weeks after joining the Sierra Club in 2010, I received a package with a “free” gift of 4 reusable bags that could be rolled up and stored in pouch. I started carrying one in my purse and using it for shopping excursions.

Grocery Market Bags

We were paper grocery bag users and the Sierra Club bags don’t have flat bottoms so we didn’t use them for grocery shopping.

One day while shopping at REI, I spotted a square-bottomed reusable bag near the checkout stand for $1.00 each. I thought what the heck and bought two. I’m not a big impulse buy shopper but apparently point-of-purchase displays do work. We liked the bags so much, I bought 10 more. The grocery market bagging personnel were appreciative as it Author's Reusable Grocery Bagsis much easier to load groceries in a bag with a flat bottom that stands up by itself.

In 2011, when I joined the National Audubon Society, the “free” gift was reusable bags with a picture of a pelican and the Audubon logo. We were all set for grocery marketing.

Shopping Bags

We got into the habit of keeping the Sierra Club bags with us or in the car and used them for non-grocery shopping.

Reusable Shopping Bag from EnvirosaxI wanted to share my reusable bag philosophy with family and friends and decided giving bags as gifts would be a non-threatening and possibly fun way to do it. I jumped online and found bags with floral and animal patterns at Envirosax. Perfect, I selected a bag I thought each person would like and mailed them in recycled paper pouches with a note about why I was sending them the bag. The response seemed positive although I do not have any “official” use data.

The Anti-Bag

We’ve all had the experience of running to the grocery market for just a couple things—either because we ran out of toilet paper or we run by on the way home from work to get milk and chicken for tonight’s dinner. Is it really necessary to put 2 items in a bag to carry them home? Why do we need a small paper bag to carry 1 greeting card or a bottle of aspirin from the drug store?

I admit that there have been a few occasions when I did not have a reusable bag with me. When that happens I ask myself if I need a bag at all.

Bag Ban Comes to Our Town

The other day, I noticed a small yellow sign taped to the checkout stand customer shelf at the grocery market. It stated a countywide single-use plastic bag ban would become effective October 1, 2012. It went on to say the store could no longer provide single-use plastic bags and would need to charge $.10 for a paper bag. This came as no surprise to me as I had followed the news about the bag ban.

I commented on the sign, and the checkout clerk offered me a free bag made out of sturdier plastic emblazoned with the store name and mentioned it was washable. I thanked her but declined stating we already had a collection of reusable bags.

Paper, Plastic, or Reusable?

Paper, plastic, and reusable bags all use resources and energy during material extraction, production, transportation, and disposal. After researching and discussing the options, we decided to minimize single-use plastic and paper bag use and move to reusable bags.

Our bag transformation did not happen overnight, it took place over a couple of years. We looked for solutions that fit our environmental philosophy and that we could live with on a regular basis. If one solution didn’t work out, we found another.

Are you ready for a bag change?

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Bags — Paper vs. Plastic: Environmental Impact

What are the environmental impacts of paper versus plastic bags? Is one better than the other? What is the “greener” choice?

Raw Materials

  • Paper bags are made from a renewal resource—trees. This may be true; however logging isn’t without its own environmental issues and it takes years to grow a new tree.
  • Plastic bags are made from nonrenewable fossil fuels—petroleum or natural gas.
  • Both paper and plastic bags can be made with recycled materials.

Energy and Water Use

  • Power PlantBoth plastic and paper bags use water and energy throughout their life cycle during extraction, production, transportation, and disposal.
  • Paper and plastic bag manufacturing requires electricity. Power may be generated by a plant burning coal, petroleum, natural gas, or one that uses renewable energy like solar or wind power.
  • Paper bags are heavier and take up more space than plastic bags so fewer bags fit on a truck, translating into more fuel used to transport paper bags than plastic.

Pollution and Environmental Damage

  • Trees act as a carbon sink by removing the carbon from CO2 and storing it as cellulose in the trunk while releasing the oxygen back into the air. Cutting down forests depletes this and other benefits trees provide.
  • Accidents and spills from oil and natural gas extraction, refining, transportation, and distribution have already had far reaching and catastrophic environmental impacts. There is no reason to believe this will not continue.
  • Some equipment, chemical compounds, and processes used to make paper and plastic bags are harmful and cause pollution.
  • Bags made from recycled materials may use fewer resources but recycling is not without environmental impact.

Waste and Recycling

  • Tree with Plastic Bags Hanging On itU.S. EPA statistics show that paper bags are recycled 5 times more than plastic bags.
  • Plastic bags made from corn or other biomaterials and Kraft type paper bags are compostable. If compostable plastic bags get mixed in with other plastic recycling, they may contaminate it.
  • Paper bags will biodegrade in nature, plastic bags will not. Birds, fish, and other wildlife may become entangled in or ingest plastic bags or parts of plastic bags.
  • Some municipalities’ efforts to ban single-use plastic bags are in part to mitigate the amount of time and money they spend dealing with plastic bag litter.

The Bottom Line

Both paper and plastic bags have an environmental impact. Is one “greener” than the other? It depends on whom you talk to or where you get your information, and how you interpret what you learn. Keep in mind comparisons can be tricky and sometimes confusing. For instance, one might need 1-3 plastic grocery bags to hold what fits in 1 paper grocery bag so bag-per-bag comparisons may be misleading.

Instead of debating paper versus plastic, perhaps we should look at other alternatives…a topic for another post.

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