Dear Recyclebank: When the sales associate asks, “Paper or plastic?” how should I answer? –Carla N.
Dear Carla: That’s a loaded question. Instinct might lead you to think paper bags are the clear choice, but there are a lot of moving parts that effect how environmentally friendly either choice is. Technically, neither one should be your go-to, and instead, you should use a reusable bag each time you go to the grocery store. But let’s face it: Everyone has been in the checkout line only to realize then that they left their reusable bags on the kitchen counter. The next time this happens, pick the bag you will reuse most and recycle correctly.
Paper bags might seem like the obvious choice, but they shouldn’t really be considered environmentally friendly: Paper production has been shown to produce significantly more pollution, emit significantly more greenhouse gases, and use significantly more energy and water than plastic bag production.
And that only covers the impact of the production of the bags. To determine whether paper or plastic bags are better, you also need to look at the effects of transporting the bags to grocery stores, how they’re used, and how they’re disposed.
Paper bags, being bigger and heavier, require more trucks for distribution — and the more transport required, the more natural resources used and pollution generated. But, a paper bag can hold 50–400% more than a plastic bag (depending on how it’s packed), meaning you could use fewer paper bags overall.
There are significant drawbacks when it comes to plastic bag disposal, as well. Despite being recyclable — and requiring less energy to be recycled than paper bags — plastic bags are not accepted by most curbside waste haulers, because they get tangled in MRF machinery, and as of a 2009 report from the EPA, only 6.1% of plastic bags are recovered for recycling. Historically, plastic bags have ended up as litter in parks, rivers, and trees. Plastic bags that end up in our environment pose a unique threat to wildlife because they can be mistaken for food. While plastic bags photodegrade, scientists have predicted it takes 500 years for that to happen, and as it does, they leach harmful chemicals into the environment. Neither plastic nor paper bags fare well in landfills. But paper bags can be easily recycled through many curbside recycling programs (as long as they are not contaminated with food grease), and as litter or compost, paper bags take only one month to biodegrade.
Being the environmentally conscious person you are, if you opt for plastic, you would recycle the plastic bags after you used them by taking them to the collection bins at the front of most grocery stores and pharmacies (don’t put them in your recycling bin!). If you opted for paper, you have two distinct options for ethical disposal. You can either put the bags in with your paper recycling, or you could compost them. What’s more, if you do have a compost pile at home, you can use the paper bags as temporary, for-the-compost-pile containers to store produce destined for the compost heap. The key thing is to make sure you will be able to recycle the material without needing to go out of your way — so if your local grocery store does not have a plastic bag recycling container at the entrance, perhaps paper bags are right for you.
Undeniably, the best choice would be to bring your own reusable bags to the store with you, as reusable bags only need to be reused 4–11 times before their footprint becomes smaller than that of the single-use plastic bag. But you won’t always have your reusable bag when you need it, in which case a choice needs to be made. The choice between paper and plastic is a personal one: Choose the material you will be able to reuse most (as garbage liners or lunch bags for the plastic variety, and textbook covers or coloring paper for paper bags) and recycle correctly without difficulty, and you’ll have made the right choice.