New study unpacks the environmental impact of paper, plastic, and reusable bags.

Sustainability |  2 min. read

Paper or plastic?

paper bag and plastic bag side by side

If your answer to that is, “Duh” — read on, and you might be surprised at what the New York Times found recently:

“Even though paper bags are made from trees, which are, in theory, a renewable resource, it takes significantly more energy to create pulp and manufacture a paper bag than it does to make a single-use plastic bag from oil.”

Citing a British study that looked at the A to Z of making a bag, “You’d have to reuse a paper bag at least three times before its environmental impact equaled that of a high-density polyethylene plastic bag used only once.  And if plastic bags were reused repeatedly, they looked even better.”

And bags that are designed to be reusable?  They have an even higher upfront environmental cost (like the land, energy, emissions, etc. that come from growing cotton).  “The study found that an avid shopper would have to reuse his or her cotton bag 131 times before it had a smaller global warming impact than a lightweight plastic bag used only once.”

Maybe that wasn’t the answer you were expecting.  But it’s not an answer that should make us throw up our arms in despair.  Here are our takeaways:

  1. Whatever sort of bag you use, use it again, and again and again.
  2. When you’re done using a plastic bag, think of it as raw material for making new plastic — not as trash. Recycle it instead of tossing it.  And if your community doesn’t have recycling for plastic bags — well, there’s some work waiting to be done.
  3. Sometimes the obvious answer to what’s best for the environment, turns out not to be the right answer. And in the fight against global warming, often there isn’t just one right answer anyhow.

(And if you’d like to read the original story in the Times, you’ll find that here:  Plastic Bags, or Paper?  Here’s What to Consider When You Hit the Grocery Store)