Whenever I’m at the grocery store, I’m always perplexed about how to respond when I get the inevitable question from the cashier in that bored, monotone voice: “paper or plastic?” I quickly run through the gamut of emotions:

paper or plastic“What’s easier for me?”
“What’s better for the environment?
“What’s the best way to get it all into my house in one trip from the car?”
“Will the other people in line judge me?”

Sure, I’ve wondered from time to time what the better, more responsible decision is. Maybe you have, too. Then I started working at Laddawn and suddenly finding out more about this became something I could actually do for work! Let’s explore….

As usual, the answer about what choice is best is not that simple. I think the recycling thing is probably the default factor that pops into people’s heads, likely due to media exposure. It goes way deeper than that. To truly understand the better way to go, you must consider the durability, the capacity, potential re-use, the energy used in production of the bag, how much ink is printed on it and the resources involved in recycling the bags.

Let’s look at some basic facts:

Plastic Bags

paper or plastic
How They Are Made: made from non-renewable resources (mostly oil) and typically manufactured in a plant using electricity. The majority of that electricity is powered in facilities using non-renewable energy. How much is “majority,’ you ask? Well, it depends on who you ask. The latest U.S. Energy Information Association (EIA) report states that 67% of electricity used in the U.S. comes from non-renewable energy (coal-burning, natural gas or petroleum).

Recycling: plastic bags CAN be recycled. Granted, the process to recycle plastic is more resource heavy then paper, as the bag needs to be melted down and re-casted. A recycled bag may not have the same quality as the original version, too. The EPA gives guidance that recycling plastic bags requires roughly 66% of the energy used to make the original bags. So, to recycle, it’s a high-resource and lower quality product in subsequent generations.

NOTE: Laddawn is a Leadership Club Member of EPA’s Green Power Partner Program. That’s because we manufacture with 100% renewable energy from sources like wind and solar power. This year, Laddawn’s renewable energy purchases will top 20 million kilowatt hours. It is equivalent of producing 22 million fewer pounds of CO2 emissions, taking 2,100 cars off the road or 3,800 tons of waste recycled rather than landfilled. We’re pretty proud of that.

Paper Bags

paper or plastic

(Photo by Stephen Ferry/Liaison)

How They Are Made: It’s no secret where paper bags come from – trees. You’ve likely seen TV shows or pictures of forests being completely wiped out, so there’s no dark secrets here. Production of paper bags stresses the environment tremendously, from the gas-powered vehicles required for forestry to the destruction of habitats to the helicopters and massive trucks needed to remove downed trees from the forest. Those trees are then stored for a period of years and go through a long washing, cooking and mixing process which also uses significant amounts of a) water and b) non-renewable energy. Then you have the chemicals, fossil-fuel energy (and more) involved in transporting them.

Recycling: paper bags have a couple of recycling options. They can be composted (provided they don’t have a lot of ink on them), which means the materials break down and become a nutrient for the ground. That’s good. They can also be recycled through a fairly intensive chemical process. Or they can just be thrown away, in which case it will take many, many, many years for it to break down and if it has ink on it, the implications for the environment become much worse.

So Which Is Better?
As usual, it’s more complicated than you might think. Franklin Associates, a Lifecycle Assessment and Waste Management consulting firm, performed an analysis of 10,000 paper and plastic bags most commonly found in grocery stores. They came to some interesting conclusions that even I wouldn’t have guessed correctly:

  • the energy required for plastic bag production is 20-40% less than the energy required to manufacture a paper bag.
  • the energy requirements for recycling both paper and plastic are the same
  • environmentally, plastics contribute 74-80% less solid waste and 90% less waterborne waste than paper at 0% recycling.
  • airborne emissions from plastic are 63-73% less than that of paper
  • one-to-one, plastic bags require 2.75x more energy to incinerate than paper, but paper has a much heavier weight (4-5x heavier), so paper requires more energy overall

Finally, there’s landfill impacts. The Franklin Associates study tells us that landfill volume from plastic bags is 70% less than that of paper. So there’s more paper out there in landfill, taking up much  more space. Picture a garbage barrel full of plastic bags and a garbage barrel full of paper bags. Think of how many plastic bags you could fit in the barrel vs. paper. Now you have a sense of volume.

In terms of degradability, Franklin could not find any distinct differences in terms of consequences for paper or plastic, but we must consider ink here. Normally ink is found far more on paper bags and that plays a role here in potential damage to the environment. That ink getting into the ground over years and years of degradation is not good for the environment.

So when faced with the question at the grocery store, most of the data actually supports the use of plastic bags. This slick infographic also supports that notion, though judging by the name of the site, they may be biased.

Either way, the EIA, the EPA and the Franklin Associates reports all indicate that plastic may be your best choice.