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Are Paper or Plastic Grocery Bags Better for the Environment?

Choosing between paper or plastic grocery bags is a complex environmental decision. Paper bags are biodegradable and recyclable, but their production consumes significant water and energy. Plastic bags use less energy to produce but can take centuries to decompose. Each has a unique impact on ecosystems. Wondering which to pick next time you shop? Let's explore the deeper implications together.
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

The debate over paper or plastic grocery bags has no apparent end in sight. Arguments can be made for either material as the most environmentally responsible one, but some have settled the issue by switching to reusable cloth sacks. While this solution may be elegant, most consumers are still confronted with the question whenever they shop for groceries. In order to decide between the two choices, it might help to examine what is meant by "better for the environment." Paper is more biodegradable, but requires trees to be cut down and processed. Plastic can take centuries to break down, but it makes less energy to produce.

Very few manufacturing processes have absolutely no negative impact on the environment. In the paper or plastic debate, paper is often promoted as the wiser choice for the environment because of its organic nature and biodegradability. Paper for grocery bags is created from natural wood pulp derived from an abundant supply of commercial trees. There are no artificial dyes added, and paper grocery bags degrade relatively quickly in landfills and other sites. From the aspect of biodegradability and raw materials, paper would appear to be better for the environment.

A paper grocery bag.
A paper grocery bag.

The paper bags must be manufactured somewhere, however, and that means factories that require significant amounts of energy to operate. These factories also discharge waste products into local waterways and into the air. Trees work as carbon dioxide traps and also provide a supply of fresh oxygen for all of the Earth's inhabitants. If the paper industry does not maintain a program of replacing the trees it uses for production, the environment as a whole could suffer. When it comes to responsible use of natural resources, biodegradable plastic may have a slight advantage.

Groceries in a paper bag.
Groceries in a paper bag.

Proponents of plastic grocery bags suggest that traditional petroleum-based plastics may not be as environmentally friendly as organic paper, but manufacturers can produce many more plastic bags for the same amount of expended energy. When factories are able to work more efficiently, the environment benefits as well. It takes fewer natural resources such as coal and gas to produce plastic bags in bulk, compared to the more labor-intensive manufacturing required to produce paper bags.

A plastic bag.
A plastic bag.

The problem with traditional petroleum-based plastic bags, environmentally speaking, is their chemical nature. Plastic bags can take centuries to degrade, and they discharge environmentally harmful gases as they do. The bags can also block sunlight, which can hamper the natural reclamation process as small plants die off. Recently developed biodegradable plastic bags made from non-petroleum sources have improved conditions somewhat, but there are still millions of traditional plastic bags sitting virtually unchanged under the ground.

Plastic bags are indeed recyclable, which should be a positive step for the environment, but few customers actually return their plastic bags to the store. Paper bags, on the other hand, may be made from recycled materials and waste pulp from other processes. When it comes to ability to be recycled, the paper or plastic debate leans towards paper. If a biodegradable plastic grocery bag made from organic materials should appear, however, the scales may become a little more balanced.

In short, paper bags in their current form seem to be better from an environmental standpoint, though anything that is not re-usable is taking its toll on our natural resources. Of course, once a suitable substitute for petroleum-based plastic can be found, the plastic bags of the future may be even better for the environment than paper or cloth bags are today.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular AboutMechanics contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

Learn more...
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular AboutMechanics contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments


It saddens me to think of all those plastic bags in landfills polluting the earth. Instead of using bags, I bring several plastic tubs with me to the store and place them in the cart. These are what I put my groceries in every week, and they will last for many years, if not decades.


@kylee07drg – I can tell you why I don't recycle my bags. The store says that it only accepts “clean” bags. Well, most of mine have juice from the fruits and vegetables I buy or juice that has leaked out of the chicken container. I don't want to wash the bags with soap and water, so I just use them as trash bags for my little garbage cans in the bedrooms and bathrooms.

I feel like paper bags are better for the environment, so if I visit a store that offers them, I ask for them. True, trees are used in the making of these bags, but don't forget that trees are also replaced. There are seedlings planted for every tree harvested, I believe.


Recycling plastic bags isn't hard at all. Many grocery stores have stations set up where you can bring your bags back to the store for recycling. I can't believe that more people aren't taking advantage of this.


Can paper bags not be recycled? Maybe since they come from already recycled materials, they can't be recycled again. I'm just curious about this one.

Regardless of whether or not they can be recycled in a facility, you can always reuse them at home. I don't throw my paper grocery bags away unless they have been contaminated with meat juice.

I use them for everything from taking lunch to work to storing pecans from the yard. I don't get rid of a paper bag until it has lost its structure or has gotten wet.


Chemicals are added to the pulp when manufacturing paper bags to give them added strength. The result is toxic waste that ends up in our rivers, lakes, streams and drinking water. This should have been discussed in this article.


You should never use a reusable bag to carry meat products home from the store. You are just asking for trouble from Listera, Ecoli, Salmonella or some other nasty bacteria.


Wonder what the transportation costs are? It seems that plastic bags, being considerably lighte,r would require less fuel for delivery to the store.


but, if you don't get a plastic bag, what do you do with all that trash?

Americans without plastic bags use thick, black, heavy, huge plastic bags to place all their waste in. So, what's the real answer now?


which one is better, if you *had* to pick one?


reuseable bags are the answer.


Pulp mills (where paper is made) such as Louisiana-Pacific use scrap wood from the lumber mills (shavings and chip), no trees are specifically cut down for paper. They also use the scrap wood to generate the electricity that runs the plant, plus provides electricity for two neighboring towns.

If your town is allowing plastic bags on the sidewalks they are not in compliance with federal guidelines to reduce waste materials. All cities are supposed to have changed to garbage cans and recycling bins.


OK, the debate goes on. What does everyone use when they throw their garbage out to the curb? Garbage collection guide lines are strict as to household and yard waste, as to container size and the bags used to collect them. paper or plastic?


I think the best thing is to use canvas bags. There are a lot of companies selling these. I use them exclusively.


what are the items used in making plastic bags. And how is it made.

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    • A paper grocery bag.
      A paper grocery bag.
    • Groceries in a paper bag.
      By: Edyta Pawlowska
      Groceries in a paper bag.
    • A plastic bag.
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      A plastic bag.