Bags — Paper vs. Plastic: Reuse, Recycle, Compost, or Toss?

Grocery shopping is probably when most people amass the largest number of bags. What do people do with the bags after the groceries are unloaded and put away?

  • Reuse
  • Recycle
  • Compost
  • Toss

Reuse

Enter “ways to reuse paper bags” or “ways to reuse plastic bags” into the search engine of your web browser and you will be bombarded with ideas. My non-scientific survey Black and White Cat Sleepingindicates that the top 3 reuses are:

  1. Reuse as a trash can liner
  2. Reuse to pick up pet waste or line litter boxes
  3. Reuse as a shopping bag

The waterproof attribute of plastic bags makes them popular for reuses such as keeping things dry in the rain or separating wet bathing suits from dry clothes. Some plastic bags tear easily so good intentions to reuse may not be realized.

Paper bags seem popular for storing other stuff, like newspapers for recycling or even plastic bags. They are also useful for covering textbooks or packages for shipping. If a paper bag gets wet on the bottom, it’s all over, sometimes literally.

Recycle

According to the U.S. EPA, 49.5% of paper bags/sacks and 9.4% of plastic bags/sacks/wraps were recycled in 2009. Grocery shopping bags are included somewhere in those figures. It’s not an “apples to apples” comparison, but it does illustrate that paper bags are recycled over 5 times more than plastic bags.

Recycling can be tricky and is not without environmental issues. Also just because you put something in the recycle bin does not mean it will actually be recycled.

  • Power PlantAlthough paper is recyclable, the process requires a lot of resources and energy (more than plastic). According to the paper industry, more and more “new” paper bags are being made from recycled paper stock.
  • Plastic bags are recyclable however they can be a challenge for recycling equipment to handle and may clog machinery. Recycled plastic bags cannot be made into more plastic bags and are “down-cycled” into items like textiles and building materials. Although the industry reports prices are increasing, recycling plastic bags is not necessarily profitable. Given the difficulty of recycling and questionable profit picture, some recyclers do not recycle the plastic bags they receive and throw them away.

Compost

  • Kraft-type paper bags are compostable. For best results, tear into shreds and moisten before putting them in the compost bin.
  • Plastic bags are not compostable. Plastic bags made of bioplastics are compostable but they have not made their way to the grocery checkout stand.

Toss

Trash tossed in landfills requires oxygen and moisture in order to decompose, and even in the best conditions, plastic does not biodegrade. Many U.S. landfills do not have “ideal” conditions for trash to decompose. You’ve probably seen an article or picture of something that goes like this “scientist pulls a newspaper from 1960 out of a landfill and it is still perfectly readable.”

  • Paper bags will decompose in nature, more quickly when exposed to moisture.
  • Plastic bags do not decompose and eventually break down into smaller and smaller pieces.
  • Due to their light weight, plastic bags may fly out of waste receptacles and landfills and cause unintentional litter.

Egrets in a Landfill

Try This

On any given day, count how many paper and plastic bags you see flying down the road, caught on fences and bushes, blocking gutters, etc.

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Bags — Then Came Plastic

Plastic Shopping Bag with Pink PatternPlastic bags are used for gathering, packaging, carrying and storing stuff. According to SPI, a plastic industry association, about 100,000,000,000 plastic bags are sold annually around the world. Styles abound from no-frills plain plastic bags to upscale bags with patterns, graphics, reinforced bottoms, and fancy handles.

A Few Plastic Bag Types

Plastic bags come in assorted types. For our purposes, we’ll focus on the single-use plastic bags people use for shopping and transporting groceries.

  • Grocery Produce / Bulk Bin / Meat Bag —  shoppers fill with lettuce, bulk oatmeal, or pork chops at the grocery market.
  • Plastic T-Shirt Bag BlueT-shirt Bag (so named because it resembles a sleeveless undershirt) — non-sealable sack with handles, also known as grocery or checkout bag.
  • Merchandise Bag — similar to a T-shirt bag with handles die cut into the bag, sometimes handles are reinforced (patch handle).
  • High-end Shopping Bag — may have hard or cardboard bottom, upscale handles, colors and graphics, some shoppers view as decorative or status symbol (stores benefit from “walking advertisement”).

Plastic Bag Materials

A variety of materials and manufacturing processes are used to make plastic bags for different uses (produce bag vs. shopping bag). A few materials are listed below:

Polypropylene is a plastic derived from petroleum or natural gas.

  • Plastic Grocery Produce BagsLDPE (low-density polypropylene): offers clarity and flexibility, used to make grocery produce bags, food storage bags, and garbage bags.
  • HDPE (high-density polypropylene): is more rigid and less permeable than LDPE, used for grocery bags and other retail bags.
  • LLDPE (linear low-density polypropylene): has higher tensile strength, higher impact, and puncture resistance than LDPE, used for shopping bags.

Bioplastics are made from biomass sources, like vegetable fats and oils and cornstarch, they are often used for vegetable packaging and as organic waste bags.

Plastic Bag History Highlights

Apparently, our love affair with plastic bags began around the mid to late 1950s.

  • 1954 – Robert W. Vergobbi patented zipper storage bags
  • 1957 – baggies and sandwich bags on a roll are first introduced
  • 1965 – Sten Gustaf Thulin’s one-piece “t-shirt” plastic shopping bag design is patented by Celloplast
  • 1966 – plastic produce bags on a roll are introduced in grocery markets
  • 1974 – department store retailers begin to switch to plastic merchandise bags
  • 1977plastic grocery bag is introduced as an alternative to paper bags
  • 1982 – supermarket chains replace paper bags with plastic bags with handles
  • 1990 – on-site plastic bag recycling collection begins at grocery markets
  • 1996 – four of five grocery bags used are plastic
  • 2011 – over 80% of all bags used are plastic bags

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