Paper or Plastic: Which Type of Bag Is More Sustainable?
Which is more sustainable: paper or plastic bags? The choice between these single-use options is not as simple as it seems.
It's no secret that plastic bags are something of an environmental menace. Known for their uncanny ability to last forever—they can take up to 1,000 years to degrade in the landfill—plastic bags, though still prevalent, are being traded up wherever possible for more seemingly sustainable options. But are paper bags really more sustainable than plastic?
So far, eight U.S. states have banned single-use plastic bags, making it difficult not to jump on the less plastic, more paper bandwagon. But when decomposition, production, and reusability are factored into the equation, the environmental impact of plastic bags versus paper bags is not as clear-cut as many of us believe.
Paper Bags vs. Plastic Bags: Decomposition
The leading environmental impact of plastic bags is their aforementioned inability to break down. Though they are technically recyclable, their soft plastic composition means that disposing of them properly requires extra steps that the majority of consumers aren't likely to take. Instead, they live on as litter—ending up in landfills or natural habitats for literal centuries.
Paper bags, conversely, are built to break down, giving them a huge advantage over plastic bags. Paper bags are both recyclable and biodegradable, meaning they can be repurposed and decomposed. Paper bags are also naturally rich in carbon, making them a perfect addition to your at-home compost bin.
All of this adds up to make paper bags seem like the obviously eco choice—until one considers production.
Paper Bags vs Plastic Bags: Production
In terms of eco-friendliness, plastic production isn’t as abhorrent as you may think. Derived from oil and utilizing high-density polyethylene, plastic production requires natural resources, it also makes use of already-accessed fuel byproducts which, until the world settles on an alternative, is the environmentally sound thing to do. Plus, plastic production contributes to far fewer carbon emissions than paper production and has fewer harmful byproducts.
Although neither process is eco-friendly, paper production is the bigger offender. According to research from the Northern Ireland Assembly, manufacturing a paper bag requires four times as much energy as creating a plastic bag. When compared to plastic production, paper production results in 70 times more air pollution and 50 times more water pollution. Lastly, paper production eliminates millions of trees—the very being that absorbs said greenhouse gasses from our atmosphere.
Paper Bags vs Plastic Bags: Reusability
Though plastic bags become nature’s enemy when discarded, when properly reused, these bags can serve a useful purpose for quite some time. Both lightweight and durable, plastic bags can carry several heavy loads without much wear and tear. Their water-resistant nature makes them extra helpful, and their size and flexibility mean they can be folded small and stored neatly for future use.
Paper bags, on the other hand, are not so easily reused. Although there are several ways to reuse a paper bag, there are not enough to offset the negative impacts of paper. In order for a paper bag to counteract its environmental impact enough to make it more sustainable than plastic, it must be reused between three and 43 times; The low durability of paper bags makes it hard to believe that they could last this long.
The unfortunate truth is that neither paper nor plastic bags are truly sustainable. Between production and decomposition, single-use bags of any kind don't skew eco-friendly.
So what’s the solution? Reusable bags!
Market bags crafted from recycled materials provide a planet-friendly solution to carting your good from A to B. Perfect for grocery outings and beach days alike, sustainably-made totes are durable enough to get the job done and last while doing it. Plus, they're pretty cute. Just make sure you're not going overboard—stick with the few you have, and use them for years to come.
Eco-Friendly Market Bag
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Made from organic cotton, this market bag packs down small enough to fit in your pocket. But don't be fooled—it can hold almost anything you put in it, from produce to bread to wine. It's perfect for farmers' market outings, grocery runs, and more.
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