Which Bags Are Actually More Environmentally Friendly – Paper or Plastic?

One of the ways that I have tried to be ecologically correct over the years is to request paper bags at the grocery store rather than plastic. Plastic is made from petroleum products, after all, so paper bags are the most ecologically correct, right? And, of course, paper is always recyclable and plastic recycling is not always available unless your local stores happen to collect them. So I have always thought that paper bags were definitely the way to go. It turns out that it is not that simple.

One of the first things that has to be considered when trying to figure out which product is the most ecologically friendly is how much energy is consumed in producing and shipping the product. To my surprise, I found out that producing paper bags produces 70% more air pollution and 50% more water pollution than producing plastic bags. On top of that, the energy required to produce a paper bag is more than four times as much as it takes to produce a paper bag. As far as shipping these products, 1000 plastic bags weigh 15 pounds, and 1000 paper bags weigh 140 pounds. Uh oh.

The next question is how recyclable is the product. Another surprise. It actually takes 91% less energy to recycle plastic than it does to recycle paper. Paper does come out ahead by virtue of the fact that 20% of paper bags are actually recycled while only 1% of plastic bags are recycled.

To further shock me, it turns out that in today’s landfills – with the lack of light, water and oxygen – paper does not break down much faster than plastic does.

Paper does win out by virtue of the fact that it is made of a renewable resource, while the crude oil and natural gas components of polyethylene are nonrenewable.

I suppose it all boils down to which of the important factors of recycling that you find most imperative. If the ability to renew the resource is the most important factor to you, then by all means paper bags are the way to go. If how much energy is consumed during the manufacturing process is important to you, or how much energy is used to ship the product, or how many pollutants are put into our water and air during the manufacturing process makes the difference, then plastic bags are the way to go.

Personally, I am switching to plastic bags at the grocery store. Better late than never, I guess.

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