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Paper Bags vs Plastic Bags: Which is Really Better?

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Paper Bags vs Plastic Bags: Which is Really Better?

By Collin Dunn, Treehugger

Paper or plastic bags: which is better?

It’s an age old question, when it comes time to check out when grocery shopping: paper bag or plastic bag? It seems like it should be an easy choice, but there’s an incredible number of details and inputs hidden in each bag. From durability and reusability to life cycle costs, there’s a lot more to each bag than meet the eye. Let’s take a look behind the bags.

Where do brown paper bags come from?

Paper comes from trees — lots and lots of trees. The logging industry, influenced by companies like Weyerhaeuser and Kimberly-Clark, is huge, and the process to get that paper bag to the grocery store is long, sordid and exacts a heavy toll on the planet. First, the trees are found, marked and felled in a process that all too often involves clear-cutting, resulting in massive habitat destruction and long-term ecological damage.

Mega-machinery comes in to remove the logs from what used to be forest, either by logging trucks or even helicopters in more remote areas. This machinery requires fossil fuel to operate and roads to drive on, and, when done unsustainably, logging even a small area has a large impact on the entire ecological chain in surrounding areas.

Once the trees are collected, they must dry at least three years before they can be used. More machinery is used to strip the bark, which is then chipped into one-inch squares and cooked under tremendous heat and pressure. This wood stew is then “digested,” with a chemical mixture of limestone and acid, and after several hours of cooking, what was once wood becomes pulp. It takes approximately three tons of wood chips to make one ton of pulp.

The pulp is then washed and bleached; both stages require thousands of gallons of clean water. Coloring is added to more water, and is then combined in a ratio of 1 part pulp to 400 parts water, to make paper. The pulp/water mixture is dumped into a web of bronze wires, and the water showers through, leaving the pulp, which, in turn, is rolled into paper.

Whew! And that’s just to make the paper; don’t forget about the energy inputs — chemical, electrical, and fossil fuel-based — used to transport the raw material, turn the paper into a bag and then transport the finished paper bag all over the world.

Where do paper shopping bags go when you’re done with them?

When you’re done using paper shopping bags, for shopping or other household reuses, a couple of things can happen. If minimally-inked (or printed with soy or other veggie-based inks) they can be composted; otherwise, they can be recycled in most mixed-paper recycling schemes, or they can be thrown away (which is not something we recommend).

If you compost them, the bags break down and go from paper to a rich soil nutrient over a period of a couple of months; if you throw them away, they’ll eventually break down of the period of many, many years (and without the handy benefits that compost can provide). If you choose to recycle paper bags, then things get a little tricky.

The paper must first be re-pulped, which usually requires a chemical process involving compounds like hydrogen peroxide, sodium silicate and sodium hydroxide, which bleach and separate the pulp fibers. The fibers are then cleaned and screened to be sure they’re free of anything that would contaminate the paper-making process, and are then washed to remove any leftover ink before being pressed and rolled into paper, as before.

Next: Plastic Bags

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Read more: Conscious Consumer, Conservation, Green, Reduce, Recycle & Reuse, , , ,

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2:15AM PST on Nov 23, 2013

Great post--thanks.

2:45PM PST on Dec 29, 2012

I get both, but I also use handmade knit reusable bags. Some places won't let me use my reusable bags and want me to pay 10 dollars for a bag that only carriers about 4-5 items, while the ones I made can carry 10-15 items when backed right. In those places I see if the plastic is bio-degradable (a store that closed this summer had ones where in 1 week they had medium sized holes in them WITHOUT being exposed to water/sunlight/whether), if the plastic bags are not, then I go with the paper bags, and reuse them in the house, and after so long into the compost pile they go. They are min. print on them, the few stores I go to that don't let you use your own bags put the ads in the mail or on a flyer in the bag
I've heard of places that will let you reuse paper bags at their store, but there are none around here.

2:24PM PST on Dec 29, 2012

Using paper over plastic makes certain people feel they are helping the environment; the same way they feel about driving hybrids. They don't understand that using LESS it always the best option, so reusing plastic bags over and over is better for the environment than taking a paper bag for every purchase, but of course this is more hassle. That's why we shouldn't call thin plastic bags "single use" since it does not have to be the case. Sometimes we can't avoid them, but we can make use of them. At the very least they can be used as trash bags. Recycling should only be for when there is no other option - reduce and reuse first.

7:38AM PDT on May 19, 2011

I use canvas bags.

7:40PM PDT on May 18, 2011

Cloth bags are epicness.

9:54PM PST on Jan 26, 2011

Good to have the numbers but have been using cloth for a long time. I do save and reuse the plastic bags from the produce section; just stick them in the cloth bag and they're handy when I need them.

7:58AM PST on Dec 13, 2010

Hello everybody!

We are a small company, part of Green America and we distribute 100% cotton ecological shopping bags! I've seen your interest in ecological shopping bags so I thought you might be interested in our offer:
Happy holidays!

4:07AM PDT on Nov 5, 2010

use recycled bags better

9:18PM PDT on Nov 3, 2010

Interesting. I would have thought that paper bags were more efficient because of their biodegradability. Either way, I still have to agree - canvas bags are the way to go.

7:00PM PDT on Oct 8, 2010

I use my canvas bags all the time. Almost all the stores in our area offer them and I get a discount on my groceries for every bag I use.

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