Are Paper Bags Worth the Environmental Baggage?

Single-use plastic bags have recently come under fire due to the pollution that has amounted throughout the U.S. and the rest of the world. Many people have the common misperception that plastic bags are worse than paper bags. Plastic leaves a sour taste in the mouth of people. It has also frustrated people that their grocery stores no longer supply them without cost. Why do people believe that plastic bags are worse than paper? It is impossible to deny that plastic bags do harm to wildlife and the environment.

Plastic bags are among the most common items that are found on beaches, along with cigarettes. According to Ocean Conservancy, plastic bags are the fourth most commonly found item on beaches. They add an enormous amount of trash to landfills, but also block storm drains, contaminate oceans, and sometimes get stuck in trees. Yes! Both single-use plastic bags and paper bags have their problems.


People see images, such as the one to the left, and want to make bans. Will that solve the problem? Single-use plastic bags are not the only trash found in oceans. Banning one material is not solving any problem. The problem is that people are littering. There is also a problem with how we are disposing our trash. Trash that is lightweight can easily fly away. It falls into oceans and causes problems with wildlife. It must be noted that single-use bags are not the only trash that is found.

California has become the first state in the nation to ban single-use plastic bags statewide. Voters approved Proposition 67 in November 2016 after lawmakers approved it in 2014. According to the San Diego Union Tribune, businesses can still offer paper bags and thicker plastic bags as long as they charge at least 10 cents for them. Politicians are still allowing people to buy the paper bags. The problem is that paper bags are much worse for the environment than single-use plastic bags. In order to come to the realization that single-use plastic bags are not as harmful as paper, we must look beyond the act of pollution.

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Paper comes from trees. A lot of trees! When we cut down trees, it eliminates the amount of CO2 that we are taking out of the atmosphere. The process of taking the trees to the paper bags that they become is long. It leads to destruction of habitats and ecological damage. The machinery that is used during the process uses a lot of fossil fuel. After the forestry is removed, the logs travel upon large diesel trucks and helicopters. This requires more fossil fuel and roads in order for the travel. Once the trees arrive at the manufacturing facilities, they go through a long process that uses a large amount of chemicals. Do not forget all of the energy consumption and additional fossil fuels it takes during this process.

Once the paper bags are used, they are composted, recycled, or thrown away in landfills. When taken in garbage trucks, the paper bags take up much more space and heavier than single-use plastic bags. When it takes up more space in the garbage trucks, it requires more garbage trucks to drive along the roads. Which leads to a larger carbon footprint. According to a study from 2007 by an Australian government agency, they found that paper bags have a larger carbon footprint overall over plastic bags. Even when they are recycled, they again must be re-pulped in a large bath of more chemicals. One may say, “But trees are renewable!” Think about how much time it takes for a tree to regrow into one that is large enough to log again!

I am not trying to say that paper is worse than plastic. At this point, my goal is to get you to realize that it is not the answer. Cotton totes have their issues at well. So, what can we use? Do I expect you to carry a shopping cart full of groceries? Certainly not!

There are a few different options that have shown to reduce our carbon footprint. Studies show that the most environmentally friendly option is reusable plastic bags from recycled material that are made from recycled material. According to a study done by the U.K. Environmental Agency, a polyethylene bag must be used 4 times, polypropylene 11, and a cotton bag 131 times before it is more environmentally friendly than a single-use plastic bag. We must work to rid ourselves of the connotations that plastic is made from toxins. It is important to realize that no bag is free from an environmental impact.

We must look at it from the perspective as to which will contribute to the smallest environmental impact. We also must think about how much we are putting into these bags. Am I putting food in here that I am going to eventually throw away? Am I throwing away a completely reusable bag? There are many questions that we must ask each other as consumers as to how much we are contributing to waste and pollution. Plastic bags can be better for the environment than other options. We should charge 10 cents for reusable plastic bags rather. We should not allow this for paper bags! We should think positive, though. It is not the end. We need to compare our options before we implement policies.