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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.

paper or plastic bags sustainability
Written by
Lindsey Anderson
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

paper or plastic bags sustainability
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
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

paper or plastic bags sustainability
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 Takeaway

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

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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