Are paper bags really better than plastic?

When asked which is better between paper or plastic, naturally, we think paper is better.

We all know that plastic is dreadful for the environment. In particular, plastic bags are known for clogging up our oceans, choking our wildlife and generally wreaking havoc on the world.

Because of this, the paper bag industry has conveniently positioned itself as the solution for decades now. But to really think about it, is paper actually that much better?

How much energy is needed to make paper bags?

Studies show that paper bags actually take over four times more energy to manufacture as compared to making a plastic bag.

Plastic bags are produced from the waste products of oil refining, and take less energy to make since they are technically produced from a byproduct of another process. 

On the other hand, paper bags require trees being cut down to produce the bags. According to a recent study, the manufacturing process of paper bags produces higher concentration of toxic chemicals when compared to making single use plastic bags.

Because paper bags weigh more than plastic, transporting them requires more energy which adds even more to their carbon footprint.

Do paper bags add climate change impact?

The materials used to make paper bags are 100% sourced from forests that are managed responsibly. The only time they are able to fight climate change in the process is if new forests are grown to replace lost trees. As we know, trees lock up carbon from the atmosphere.

In 2006, the Environment Agency examined a range of bags made from different materials to find out how many times they can be reused. The process aimed to determine if paper bags have lower global warming potential than a conventional single-use plastic bag.

The same study concluded that paper bags needed to be reused at least three times, one fewer than plastic bags, before they have to be thrown away, to at least prove to be better than plastic. 

However, those only look like an ideal, since paper bags, as we know them, are not as durable. They are more likely to split or tear, especially if they get wet.

How is paper bag better than plastic?

Paper decomposes considerably more quickly than plastic.Meaning, it is unlikely to be a source of litter and become a risk to wildlife. It is one of the advantages of plastic. 

Paper is also more widely recyclable, while plastic bags can take between 40 and 1,000 years to decompose.

Although less durable, paper bags require marginally fewer resources than plastic bags. They decompose faster and can even be recycled, while plastic bags are not recyclable at all.

The truth about paper bags

Paper bags used to be popular many years ago and were used as primary packaging material. However, they were pushed to the side when supermarkets in the 1970’s started using plastic, thinking it was a more durable option.

Fast forward to today when plastic is becoming a problem, we now see paper bags surging to popularity again. But are paper bags more environmentally friendly than plastic? Hmm, not as much as we think so.

For one, paper does a lot of damage to the Earth as well. Each time we unthinkingly grab a few bags at the checkout stand, we contribute to that damage. It is time to learn the truth about paper bags, so we can start making better choices.

Paper bags just seem friendlier to the environment. They do not have that slick petroleum look like plastic bags do; they are cheerful kraft color; they fold up nearly to stack in your cupboard for next time.

However, there are a few things we don’t know about paper bags and its impact to the environment.

  • It does not break down any faster than plastic in landfills. While paper breaks down faster under ideal conditions, landfills are not really ideal. The lack of air and oxygen means not a lot decomposes, so both paper and plastic naturally spend equal amounts of time there.
  • Paper bags are bigger than plastic. This means they take up more space in landfills. They’re recycled at a higher rate which mitigates that fact, but that still means they still have a greater impact on landfills. As they take more space and impede air circulation, they are also not easily recycled.
  • There are 70 more air pollutants than plastic if paper bags generate. At the same time, paper bags generate 50 times more water pollutants. 
  • Compared to paper bags, recycling plastic bag takes 91 percent less energy.Not only do paper bags require more energy to manufacture, they require almost the same amount of energy to decompose, too. 

Common questions about paper bags being better than plastic

Why are reusable plastic bags better than paper bags?

Paper bags take more energy to recycle, and need more resources to manufacture. As a matter of fact, paper bags require more non-renewable resources, making their carbon footprint a lot worse than that of reusable plastic bags. They are also less durable so there is almost no option to reuse them for a long time.

What is the best alternative to plastic bags?

The best alternative is still canvas or cotton bags. They are durable and sustainable. Designed to last long, reusable bags made of cloth could last you many years if you properly care for them.

What is the alternative to plastic garbage bags?

Instead of plastic garbage bags, it is better to use plant-based trash can liners. Several companies have come up with sustainable bags made from plant starch. Contrary to single-use plastic garbage bags, these ones are compostable and biodegradable.

Contrary to popular belief, paper bags are not the answer to our growing plastic problem. Customers tend to replace their paper ones more frequently, which would naturally have a greater environmental effect. To reduce the impact of all carrier bags, the key is to reuse them as much as possible no matter what they are made of.