Which is more environmentally friendly: paper or plastic?

As stores and cities revolt against traditional plastic bags, is paper really a greener choice?
As stores and cities revolt against traditional plastic bags, is paper really a greener choice?
David Paul Morris/Getty Images

As you wrap­ up your weekly grocery shopping and get in line at the supermarket, it's time for yet another difficult choice. The cashier mechanically spouts at you, "Paper or plastic?" referring to what kind of bag you'd prefer. For some people, it's a stressful decision. Convenience is pulling you toward plastic, but a nagging green conscience might automatically pull you toward pa­per. However, it's raining, and if your paper bags break, it could ruin your purchases. On the other hand, is it selfish to put immediate convenience over the thousands of years it might take for a plastic bag to degrade in a landfill? But, what a minute -- aren't we encouraged to save the trees and avoid overusing paper?

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­Consumer consciences aren't the only ones plagued by the "paper or plastic" question. Grocery stores pay less for plastic bags but get pressure from environmental groups to stop offering them. So, retailers and even entire cities are deciding to stop asking the familiar question. Instead, they're making the decision for us. Touting environmental concerns, the grocery store chain Whole Foods stopped giving out plastic bags in 2008. Entire cities like San Francisco and Oakland, have passed measures restricting -- or even banning -- the use of plastic bags in grocery stores.

In response to Oakland's ban, an organization backed by plastic manufacturers is suing the city. The Coalition to Support Plastic Bag Recycling claims that the city failed to do enough research into the repercussions of such a ban. The suit isn't on the grounds that a ban will wreak havoc on plastic profits, but rather on the environment. The coalition claims that plastic is just as green as paper or, perhaps more accurately, paper is just as harmful to the environment as plastic [source: Heredia]. It contends that replacing plastic bags with paper will cause more harm than good to the planet.

So, what's it gonna be: paper or plastic? Both come with distinct disadvantages to the environment, which we lay out next.

Paper Versus Plastic: Environmental Disadvantages of Each

For the battle over which is greener, neither paper nor plastic have it in the bag.
For the battle over which is greener, neither paper nor plastic have it in the bag.
iStockPhoto/Sean McBride

When you do get to choose between paper and plastic, don't let green guilt necessarily pull you toward paper. Consider that both materials have drawbacks for the environment.

­Before you brown bag it, consider these environmental disadvantages of paper:

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  • Causes pollution: Paper production emits air pollution, specifically 70 percent more pollution than the production of plastic bags [source: Thompson]. According to certain studies, manufacturing paper emits 80 percent more greenhouse gases [source: Lilienfield]. And, consider that making paper uses trees that, instead, could be absorbing carbon dioxide. The paper bag making process also results in 50 times more water pollutants than making plastic bags [source: Thompson].
  • Consumes energy: Even though petroleum goes into making plastic, it turns out that making a paper bag consumes four times as much energy as making a plastic bag, meaning making paper consumes a good deal of fuel [source: reusablebags.com].
  • Consumes water: The production of paper bags uses three times the amount of water it takes to make plastic bags [source: Lilienfield].
  • Inefficient recycling: The process of recycling paper can be inefficient -- often consuming more fuel than it would take to make a new bag [source: Milstein]. In addition, it takes about 91 percent more energy to recycle a pound of paper than a pound of plastic [source: reusablebags.com].
  • Produces waste: According to some measures, paper bags generate 80 percent more solid waste [source: Lilienfield].
  • Biodegrading difficulties: Surprisingly, the EPA has stated that in landfills, paper doesn't degrade all that much faster than plastics [source: Lilienfield].

 

However, plastic didn't get a bad reputation for nothing. Here are some environmental disadvantages of plastic:

Many stores offer bins for properly recycling old plastic bags.
Many stores offer bins for properly recycling old plastic bags.
David McNew/­Getty Images
  • Litter: Littered plastic bags are everywhere toda­y -- blown around streets, stuck in fences and trees. And, aside from their use in the occasional art film (à la American Beauty) they can be ­an eyesore and a pain.
  • ­Danger to wildlife: Plastic waste is deceptive for birds and other wildlife, who mistake it for food. And you can imagine how eating plastic messes with an animal's intestine. As a result, animals can die of starvation [source: Spivey]. To prevent this, perhaps paper is the better choice, especially if you live on the coast, as your plastic waste is more likely to make its way to marine life and sea birds [source: Thompson].
  • Long-term degrading: Light breaks plastic down so it photodegrades rather than biodegrades. Estimates say that this process can take up to 500 or even 1000 years in landfills [source: Lapidos]. Unfortunately, we don't really know, as plastic is a relatively new invention.
  • Recycling difficulties: Although for the most part, plastic takes less energy to recycle than paper, plastic bags are a frustrating recycling dilemma. The curbside recycling in many communities is not meant for plastic bags because they can screw up the plant's machines [source: Milstein]. Instead, some stores offer bins in which to properly recycle plastic bags.

These factors have made the question of which is greener mind-boggling. The EPA has admitted that not only is the question unresolved, but it doesn't consider the use of plastic bags a major issue [source: Spivey]. Most environmental groups say that it's best to avoid the choice altogether -- instead we should diligently reuse bags.

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More Great Links

Sources

  • Heredia, Christopher. "Lawsuit delays Oakland's plastic bag ban." SFGate.com. Jan. 29, 2008. (Aug. 8, 2008) http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/01/29/BAIDUNPN4.DTL
  • Lapidos, Juliet. "Will My Plastic Bag Still Be Here in 2507?" Slate. June 27, 2007. (Aug. 8, 2008) http://www.slate.com/id/2169287/nav/navoa/
  • Lilienfield, Robert. "Review of Life Cycle Data Relating to Disposable Compostable, Biodegradable, and Reusable Grocery Bags." The ULS Report. June 1, 2007. (Aug. 8, 2008) http://www.deq.state.mi.us/documents/deq-ess-p2-recycling-PaperPlasticSummary_2.pdf
  • Milsein, Michael. "Which bag is best: Paper or plastic?" The Oregonian. May, 17, 2007. (Aug. 8, 2008) http://www.oregonlive.com/environment/index.ssf/2007/05/paper_or_plastic_which_is_best.html
  • Reusablebags.com. "Paper Bags Are Better Than Plastic, Right?" Reusablebags.com. (Aug. 8, 2008) http://www.reusablebags.com/facts.php?id=7
  • Spiv­ey, Angela. "Plastic bags -- prolific problems - Recycling." Environmental Health Perspectives, April 2003. (Aug. 8, 2008) http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0CYP/is_4_111/ai_102102851
  • Thompson, Anne. "Paper or plastic -- what's the greener choice?" NBC News. Updated May 7, 2007. (Aug. 8, 2008) http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/18538484/

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