Grocery Bags
Last modified: March 22, 2019

Paper or Plastic? Neither! Reuse!

The energy and other environmental impacts embodied in a plastic grocery bag is somewhat less than in a paper grocery bag. But paper is accepted in most recycling programs while the recycling rate for plastic bags is very low.

So, which is better for the environment? Neither! The fact is that the difference between paper and plastic RECYCLING is small compared with the REUSING bags.
  • Carry reusable cloth bags (see first reference below).
  • Reuse paper and plastic bags several trips.
  • Learn to say "no, thanks" when you don't need a bag.
  • Keep a cardboard box or two in your car's trunk and load it directly from your shopping cart.
References on the Web
  • Earth-Friendly Living: Reusable bags, 10 years later
    By Mark Harris
    Environmental News Network
    • Evaluates different reusable bags, gives toll-free phone numbers.

  • "Paper or Plastic?"
    By Michael Brower, Ph.D. and Warren Leon, Ph.D.,
    The Consumerís Guide to Effective Environmental Choices - Practical Advice from the Union of Concerned Scientists
    Pages 132 - 133, Three Rivers Press, New York - 1999
    • Discusses studies of paper versus plastic bags. Bottom line, lots of complexities but differences in environmental impacts are relatively minor.

  • Plastic Bag Reuse
    The Film and Bag Federation
    • Creative reuse ideas for plastic bags provided by consumers.

References at the Library
  • "Reuse versus recycling: A look at grocery bags"
    By Robert W. Fenton
    Resource Recycling March 1992 pp. 105+
    • Calculates the energy intensity per trip for different types of grocery bags. The results show the break-even points for when reusable bags are more energy efficient than single-use bags. A simpler choice -- reusing a bag meant for just one use -- also has a big impact.

  • "Resource and Environmental Profile Analysis of Pelyethylene and Unbleached Paper Grocery Sacks,"
    Franklin Associates, July 1990
    • Thorough but ignores reuse.

  • "Pushing Paper in a Plastic World,"
    by Calmetta Coleman, Wall Street Journal, 2/24/98 (page B1,7)
    • About consumer preference, capacity, cost-per-bag, and handles. Stores benefit by giving a credit of 5 to 10 cents to entice customers to reusing bags. Statistic paper bags carried 20% of the nation's groceries in 1998, down from 95% in 1982.

  • Bag it: 'Paper or Plastic?'
    We're asked at the grocery store, but what about cloth?
    By Tracy Koontz
    E Magazine, March/April 1996 (pp. 42-3)

  • Bag It: The Grocery Sack Dilemma
    By Karen McNulty
    Science World - April 20, 1990, pp. 11-16

  • Plastic or Paper: Which is better for the environment?
    By Carol Nuckols
    Fort Worth Star-Telegram - December 6, 1997

[Thanks to Glenn Meyer, Pollution Control Specialist, Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance, for help with this section. Glenn's motto is: "Whatever you choose, reuse."]

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