Would you like paper or plastic? This question has been asked in grocery stores countless times over the years. But is it still relevant today? With the wide-spread use of cotton and canvas reusable bags, people are beginning to question the need for the other two. As it turns out, reusable bags have their own follies as well and might not be the definitive answer to the perfect grocery bag.

The Impact Of Plastic Bags

Plastic bags probably aren’t the worst option, but there is definitely a reason for a mass outcry against them. A few positive responses to choosing plastic include: reusability, a plastic bag can be used several times before breaking and can last practically forever (also a weakness). And they are both lighter in weight and more cost effective to produce, in addition to causing much less pollution than paper during production. It actually takes 14 million trees to make 10 billion paper bags yearly in the U.S. (and you see why more and more industries are trying to go paperless).


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The true problems with plastic lie with how we handle the excess. With tens of millions of it thrown away every year, plastic makes up nearly 12 percent of all landfill waste. And only about 8 percent of plastic waste gets recycled. However, the issues that really aggravate activists and many other groups are the problems caused by littering. Millions of stray and discarded plastic bags are littered world-wide each year. And torn or open bags that end up in oceans or on street corners pose a real threat to animals. Each year many animals are either hurt or die from ingesting fragments of plastic material.

The Environmental Impact Of Paper Bags

Is paper more environmentally friendly than plastic? In some ways, yes it is better. For instance, it takes paper remarkably less time to break-down and be restored to the environment than plastic. It would take a plastic grocery bag an estimated 500-1,000 years to completely biodegrade. Where paper can decompose in about 2-3 weeks and is recyclable.

Adversely, though they can be reused, paper bags are easily damaged and can tear making them less desirable. Paper production is also extremely harmful to the atmosphere. During manufacturing it emits 80 percent more greenhouse gases than plastic bags. The process also creates 50 times more water pollutants than plastic. And although paper is readily recycled, it takes about 90 percent more energy to recycle a paper bag than it would a plastic bag. Paper or Plastic?  Surprisingly, it looks like plastic has the edge here.

Should I Use An Alternative Grocery Bag?

Is paper or plastic really my only option? No, today in the U.S. alone 39 percent of grocery shoppers own and utilize reusable bags, which can be made of cotton, canvas, hemp, or nylon. Many consumers are turning to these alternatives because they are sturdy, natural, and last a long time. And because many of these bags are made from natural substances they are easily biodegradable.

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However with every solution comes potential consequence. Reusable bags have garnered some backlash from their ability to accumulate bacteria after repeated use. A study in Arizona and California by food protection.org found that 51 percent of bags tested contained some level of bacteria due to cross-contamination. While this is definitely a concern, many advocates for these bags will argue that by simply washing your bags after each use you can avoid the bacteria.

The Compromise

Paper bags may be too much of a hindrance to the environment, but plastic bags can still be salvaged and redeemed. If you choose to use plastic, it’s important to be mindful of what happens to the bags when you’re finished. Never litter plastic bags or dispose of them somewhere that isn’t a receptacle. Try to get as many uses as possible out of them, they are long lasting and can provide many uses, such as over-night bags, storage or waste containers.

Integrating reusable bags into your shopping routine can help limit plastic or paper usage. Just remember to take proper care of them and if they get a little too gnarly, it may be time to recycle them.

Since the first plastic bags were introduced in the 1970’s, the question of paper or plastic or now reusable bags have been repeatedly raised. And while change is constant and a given, just look at the facts and make the choice of finding the right grocery bag for you.