We are independent & ad-supported. We may earn a commission for purchases made through our links.
Advertiser Disclosure
Our website is an independent, advertising-supported platform. We provide our content free of charge to our readers, and to keep it that way, we rely on revenue generated through advertisements and affiliate partnerships. This means that when you click on certain links on our site and make a purchase, we may earn a commission. Learn more.
How We Make Money
We sustain our operations through affiliate commissions and advertising. If you click on an affiliate link and make a purchase, we may receive a commission from the merchant at no additional cost to you. We also display advertisements on our website, which help generate revenue to support our work and keep our content free for readers. Our editorial team operates independently of our advertising and affiliate partnerships to ensure that our content remains unbiased and focused on providing you with the best information and recommendations based on thorough research and honest evaluations. To remain transparent, we’ve provided a list of our current affiliate partners here.

Are Paper or Plastic Grocery Bags Better for the Environment?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 17, 2024
Our promise to you
About Mechanics is dedicated to creating trustworthy, high-quality content that always prioritizes transparency, integrity, and inclusivity above all else. Our ensure that our content creation and review process includes rigorous fact-checking, evidence-based, and continual updates to ensure accuracy and reliability.

Our Promise to you

Founded in 2002, our company has been a trusted resource for readers seeking informative and engaging content. Our dedication to quality remains unwavering—and will never change. We follow a strict editorial policy, ensuring that our content is authored by highly qualified professionals and edited by subject matter experts. This guarantees that everything we publish is objective, accurate, and trustworthy.

Over the years, we've refined our approach to cover a wide range of topics, providing readers with reliable and practical advice to enhance their knowledge and skills. That's why millions of readers turn to us each year. Join us in celebrating the joy of learning, guided by standards you can trust.

Editorial Standards

At About Mechanics, we are committed to creating content that you can trust. Our editorial process is designed to ensure that every piece of content we publish is accurate, reliable, and informative.

Our team of experienced writers and editors follows a strict set of guidelines to ensure the highest quality content. We conduct thorough research, fact-check all information, and rely on credible sources to back up our claims. Our content is reviewed by subject-matter experts to ensure accuracy and clarity.

We believe in transparency and maintain editorial independence from our advertisers. Our team does not receive direct compensation from advertisers, allowing us to create unbiased content that prioritizes your interests.

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.

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.

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.

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.

About Mechanics is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to About Mechanics, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By healthy4life — On Dec 17, 2012

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.

By feasting — On Dec 16, 2012

@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.

By kylee07drg — On Dec 16, 2012

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.

By shell4life — On Dec 15, 2012

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.

By anon280472 — On Jul 18, 2012

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.

By anon273490 — On Jun 07, 2012

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.

By anon152308 — On Feb 13, 2011

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

By anon140576 — On Jan 07, 2011

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?

By anon81736 — On May 03, 2010

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

By anon49538 — On Oct 21, 2009

reuseable bags are the answer.

By anon28719 — On Mar 21, 2009

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.

By anon25871 — On Feb 04, 2009

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?

By anon4818 — On Nov 02, 2007

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

By anon3586 — On Sep 06, 2007

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

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to About Mechanics, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide...
Learn more
About Mechanics, in your inbox

Our latest articles, guides, and more, delivered daily.

About Mechanics, in your inbox

Our latest articles, guides, and more, delivered daily.