Green Myth: Paper Bags over Plastic

Green Myth: Paper Bags over Plastic

Ryan Dwyer, guest bloggerPosted by Ryan Dwyer, guest blogger

For years, environmentally conscious grocery shoppers have opted for paper bags over plastic. In 2007, the city of San Francisco made national headlines when it banned disposable plastic grocery bags, kicking off a trend that was duplicated in progressive communities around the world. Unfortunately, these well-intentioned actions may do more harm than good—despite their reputation, plastic bags actually have a smaller environmental impact than their paper counterparts.

The Problem With Plastic Bags

Plastic bags are not perfect. They are produced from petroleum, which is a nonrenewable material. When they are carried away by the wind or dropped as litter, these bags can clog city drains, trap birds, and harm animals that swallow them. These non-biodegradable bags contribute to pollution problems such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Paper bagWhy Paper Is Worse

Bags made from paper take more energy to produce and transport than their plastic counterparts. They are heavier, so even though paper isn’t made from petroleum, its supply chain generally requires more of it than plastic does. In production, paper uses many times more water and produces significantly more pollution than plastic. While a paper bag can be recycled, not all are. Many bags end up in landfills, where they take up more space than plastic bags and release methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Compounding Factors

Paper bags are also flimsy, especially when wet. As a result, many grocery stores double-bag when using paper to ensure that customers don’t drop their milk on the way home. Paper bags are unlikely to be reused multiple times because they are often too damaged after the first use, with tears at the handles or at the top of the bag.

Ideally, plastic bag bans should encourage consumers to shop with reusable bags. If you find yourself at the grocery store without your own bag, you have a few choices. One option is to load up your car directly. This is a bit of a hassle, but it is manageable for a small grocery load. If you have to choose between paper and plastic, however, plastic is the better option. By reusing your plastic disposable bags and making sure to return them to recycling facilities, your conscience ought to be soothed by knowing you did the best you could.

For more information, take a look at life-cycle analyses of both types of bags created by the UK government and a meta-analysis of similar studies by Use Less Stuff.

Know of any other commonly believed environmental myths? Please share them in the comments below!

Image source: Flickr