Myth: Paper Bags are Better Than Plastic Bags

08 Aug 2011

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If you own or manage a grocery store, you may be frustrated with the perception of "paper, not plastic". Maybe it is time that you began educating your consumers about the differences between paper and plastic grocery bags.

Studies sponsored by independent retailers or governments generally agree that plastic bags consume less water and energy, and produce less pollution, including greenhouse-gas emissions than paper. There is a popular misconception that paper bags are more environmentally friendly than plastic bags.

Issue 1: Energy and natural resources
According to a 2007 study, it takes almost four times as much energy to manufacture a paper bag as it does to manufacture a polyethylene bag.

Not only do both paper and compostable resin bags use far more fossil fuel in production and manufacturing, but they also use twenty times more fresh water than plastic bags.

Additionally, most paper comes from tree pulp, so the impact of paper bag production on forests is enormous. An article from the National Cooperative Grocers Association states that each year the United States consumes 10 billion paper grocery bags, requiring 14 million trees.

Issue 2: Pollution
Paper bag production delivers a global warming double-whammy; forests which are the largest absorbers of greenhouse gases have to be cut down, and then the subsequent manufacturing of bags produces greenhouse gases.

The majority of kraft paper is made by heating wood chips under pressure at high temperatures in a chemical solution. As evidenced by the unmistakable stench commonly associated with paper mills, the use of these toxic chemicals contributes to both air pollution, such as acid rain, and water pollution.

Issue 3: Recycling
Studies indicate it takes 91% less energy to recycle a pound of plastic than it takes to recycle a pound of paper. But recycling rates of either type of disposable bag are extremely low.

Issue 4: Degradability
Many people choose paper over plastic because they believe it will biodegrade faster than plastic will break down in a landfill. However, there are a number of factors that determine how quickly, if at all, paper degrades – this includes temperature, pH, the type of bacteria present and the form of paper (shredded paper degrades faster.)

Additionally, with Oxo-Biodegradable Plastic, a new technology that produces plastic which degrades by a process of OXO-degradation, plastic bags can be economically made to be biodegradable.

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