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 require 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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Author: Linda Poppenheimer

Linda researches and writes about environmental topics to share information and to spark conversation. Her mission is to live more lightly on Earth and to persuade everyone else to do the same.

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