Paper or Plastic?
(Either is good if reused)
In 1980, many supermarkets switched from using paper bags to plastic since the plastic (polyethylene) bags are less expensive. Because many customers complained, grocery stores now give a choice between paper and plastic. Some shoppers choose paper assuming it is an environmentally better alternative. But is this the case?
In a comparison of the two types of grocery bags, Franklin Associates* concluded that the manufacture of plastic bags produced considerably less air pollution, water borne wastes, and industrial solid-waste than the manufacture of paper. Because plastic bags are lighter, they also produce less post-consumer solid waste, taking up less space in landfills. Researchers found that plastic sacks have these advantages even when grocery store clerks pack less in each bag, thereby using 1.5 or 2 times as many plastic bags to pack the same groceries as paper.
Energy-wise, it is a tie. Plastic bags required slightly less energy to manufacture at a use rate of 1.5 to 1 compared with paper and more energy at a use rate of 2 to 1. Paper bags are better because they are made from wood, a renewable resource, while plastic bags are made from petroleum. Also paper grocery bags are recycled at a higher rate and are reused more frequently, since many home kitchen trash containers are designed with paper grocery bags in mind.
In the end, it is a toss-up whether paper or plastic grocery bags are better for the environment. The important thing is to reuse paper and plastic bags over and over. Best still is to bring your own cloth bags or ask store clerks to hand you easily transportable items without bags.
* Brower, Michael & Leon, Warren (1999) The Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices - Practical Advice from the Union of Concerned Scientists, Three Rivers Press, New York, p. 132-133.