Guest post by Lane’ Richards, The Living Green Solution
Disposable bags are convenient, but at what cost? Find out which is better, paper or plastic, and why you should B.Y.O.B. (bag) the next time you shop.
According to the Food Marketing Institute, the average American consumer makes about 2 trips to the grocery store each week, spending almost $30 each trip. Imagine how many bags that is each week!
Estimates show the average family accumulates thirty plastic bags in only two trips to the grocery store. Thirty bags a week? That equals, on average, over fifteen hundred plastic bags a year! This number will be slightly lower if you use paper bags, as they hold more than conventional grocery store bags (50 to 400 percent more, depending on how they’re packed, since they hold more volume and are sturdier). This is only grocery store bags, what about bags you get from department stores, convenience stores and more? Yes, that’s a lot of bags!
When you take a look at the entire lifecycle of a bag (paper or plastic), from its creation to disposal, you’ll find that there are no clear answers.
Energy and Natural Resources
- In 1999, roughly fourteen million trees were cut to make the ten billion grocery bags that Americans used that year.
- Grocery bags come from a type of plastic known as polyethylene, derived from nonrenewable petroleum and natural gas, plus questionable chemical additives. They account for roughly four percent of oil production around the world.
- Plastic grocery bags require seventy percent less energy to manufacture than paper bags, and produce half the amount of greenhouse gas emissions in the process. (View the full report here)
- For every seven trucks needed to delivery paper bags, only one truck is needed for the same number of plastic bags, helping to save energy and reduce emissions.
- Worldwide, we consume roughly five hundred billion to one trillion plastic bags each year, or about a million bags per minute. Americans alone use an estimated hundred billion plastic shopping bags annually – the equivalent of twelve million barrels of oil – approximately ninety-nine percent of which goes straight to the landfill.
- The production of plastic bags consumes less than four percent of the water needed to make paper bags.
BEST OPTION: PLASTIC
- One mature tree absorbs about thirteen pounds of carbon dioxide per year. Every ton of wood grown in a forest removes 1.47 tons of carbon dioxide, replacing it with 1.07 tons of oxygen.
- Plastic bags are the second-most common type of ocean refuse, after cigarette butts (2008). More than a million sea birds and 100,000 marine mammals die every year from ingesting or getting caught in marine debris, much of which comprises plastic bags. In 2002, the examination of a dead minke whale that had washed up on the coast of France found more than 1,700 pounds of plastic bags and packaging in its stomach.
- Ten percent of the plastic produced every year worldwide winds up in the ocean. Seventy percent of which finds its way to the ocean floor, where it will never degrade.
- Every square mile of ocean has about 46,000 pieces of plastic floating in it.
BEST OPTION: PAPER
- Paper bags generate seventy percent more air and fifty times more water pollutants than plastic bags.
- Manufacturers sometimes use aluminum sulfate, a suspected reproductive toxin, to make paper. Moreover, to give paper bags a consistent color, the factory relies on dyes that contain a mishmash of chemicals that can include chlorine, associated with the release of dangerous toxins known as dioxins. As evidenced by the unmistakable stench commonly associated with paper mills, the use of these toxic chemicals contributes to both air pollution, such as acid rain, and water pollution. Millions of gallons of these chemicals pour into our waterways each year; the toxicity of the chemicals is long-term and settles into the sediments, working its way through the food chain.
BEST OPTION: PLASTIC
- About eight in ten U.S. paper mills are now equipped to use paper collected from recycled programs. While most mills still rely on virgin materials, many have factored recycled material into their regular paper-grade recipes.
- Even switching to recycled-paper bags can make a difference. Besides saving trees, producing recycled paper creates seventy-four percent less air pollution and thirty five percent less water pollution than producing paper from virgin materials.
- Minimally inked paper bags can be composted and turned into rich soil within a few months.
- We recycle only ten to fifteen percent of our paper bags and one to three percent of our plastic bags.
- Recycling paper bags requires they first be re-pulped, which generally requires a chemical process to bleach and separate the pulp fibers. Those fibers are then cleaned and screened to make sure nothing contaminates the paper-making process, and then they’re washed to remove any leftover ink before being pressed and rolled into paper.
- Nationwide, over 832 million pounds of bags and film were recycled in 2008, up twenty-eight percent from 2005. Only .5 to 3 percent of all plastic bags end up being recycled.
- In addition to recycling, a recent national survey shows that over ninety percent of Americans reuse their plastic bags. Roughly sixty-five percent reuse their bags for trash disposal while other common uses include lunch bags and pet pick-up. Reusing a plastic shopping bag prevents a second bag from being purchased to fulfill these necessary functions.
- Recycling a plastic bag requires two-thirds of the energy used in virgin plastic manufacturing. However, because polymer chains break down in the recycling process, most plastics are recycled into less functional forms, making it hard to make new plastic bags out of old plastic bags.
- Paper thrown away in the landfill often has no access to light or oxygen that it needs to break down. When bags biodegrade, they produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
- When plastics break down, they don’t biodegrade; they photodegrade. This means the materials break down to smaller fragments that readily soak up toxins. They then contaminate soil, waterways, and animals upon digestion.
- On average, we use a plastic bag for twelve minutes; in a good circumstance it will take more than twenty years to degrade. In less ideal circumstances (landfills or as general refuse), a bag will take more than a thousand years, according to some estimates.
BEST OPTION: PAPER
Both paper and plastic requires valuable resources and energy and have a major (negative) impact on the environment. Many argue plastic is better than paper because you can reuse the bag repeatedly, while paper is better because it’s more easily recycled. However, while an item can be recycled, it cannot be recycled repeatedly and even the recycling process requires resources. As shown above, it appears the likely answer is plastic, but nothing is ever as easy as it may seem.
Here in Oregon, I asked my mentor this same question “which is better: paper or plastic” and trusting her knowledge and expertise, she stated “paper”. In Oregon, paper is preferable because it is conveniently recycled at the curb. Used paper bags are purchased by Oregon mills to make into new bags or boxes. They can go through the cycle eight times before the fibers are too short. It is very difficult to recycle plastic bags because they have little value in the marketplace.
Of course, the best response would be to B.Y.O.B. (bag), but if you find yourself at the checkout stand without one, you’ll have a little more knowledge to make your own decision. For more information, The Washington Post put out a great feature on paper or plastic. It goes into more details including the production process.
What do you do to remember to bring your own bag?
Author Note: Lane’ Richards is a Master Recycler and owner of The Living Green Solution, offering a variety of eco-friendly home solutions, tips and services to achieve greener, healthier living. Join her on Facebook and Twitter @LivingGreenOR