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Paper, Plastic, or Reusable? 

With Wegmans announcing their elimination of plastic bags on January 27 in lieu of paper bags, which will cost shoppers 5 cents a bag, many of us are now opting for reusable bags to reduce waste.  So, how exactly will this smart shopping help the environment and make one feel good about the imposed change?

The following consumption statistics show that plastic bags are a significant reason for increased land and water pollution:

  • According to The Wall Street Journal, the U.S. goes through 100 billion plastic shopping bags annually.
  • Four out of five grocery bags in the U.S. are now plastic.
  • A person uses a plastic bag on average for only 12 minutes.
  • Typically, we only recycle one plastic bag for every 200 used.
  • Each year, an estimated 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide. That comes out to over one million per minute. Billions end up as litter each year.
  • Plastic bags are among the 12 items of debris most often found in coastal cleanups, according to the nonprofit Center for Marine Conservation.
    Photo by Brian Yurasits

    Similarly, the plastic bag has environmental impact:

    • Plastic bags don’t biodegrade, but photodegrade, breaking down into continuously smaller toxic bits.
    • A plastic bag can take between 400 to 1,000 years to break down in the environment.
    • As bags break down, plastic particles contaminate soil and waterways which enter the food web when animals accidentally ingest them.
    • In some locations, there is 46 times more plastic than available food for marine animals.
    • Plastic bags cause over 100,000 sea turtle and other marine animal deaths every year.
    • Nearly 90% of the debris in our oceans is plastic.
    • When fish and other marine animals ingest plastic debris, they are also ingesting these toxins. If the food we eat is contaminated with toxins, we will be too.

    Are paper bags really more Earth friendly? 

    Many people believe that paper bags are better for the environment because they are made from a renewable resource which can biodegrade or be recycled. However, according to research from, the truth about paper bags is surprising:

    • Paper bags are bigger than plastic, which means they take up more space in landfills. They’re recycled at a higher rate, which mitigates that fact, yet still have a greater per-bag impact on landfills.
    • It takes four times as much energy to manufacture a paper bag compared to plastic, and the raw materials have to come from trees, a natural resource that is otherwise carbon-fixing. Making paper bags not only adds waste to the world, it kills one of our greatest tools for fighting pollution – trees. To be exact, in the U.S alone that’s 14 million trees each year for approximately 10 billion paper bags produced.
    • Paper bags also generate 70 more air pollutants than plastic.
    • It takes 91 percent less energy to recycle a plastic bag than it does a paper bag.
    • Paper bags are very thick, so shipping them costs more fuel per bag.

    Although paper may not be the answer, this isn’t a vote for plastic either. Keep in mind since single-use plastic bags are more cost effective to manufacture and purchase, they have a much higher consumption rate and contribute to air-born pollution, landing in our streets, waterways, beaches, public parks, and fields, where wildlife can also mistake them as food with fatal consequences. In addition, since plastic bags are more readily available and often do not get recycled, they end up in our landfills. Overall, paper bags may circumvent these problems, regardless of their alternative.

    Is the answer the reusable shopping bag?

    The reusable shopping bag may seem best for the planet because it cuts our reliance on single-use plastic or paper bags.  No doubt it is more environmentally friendly by reducing the amount of waste and pollution as well as being cost effective and durable. Who wouldn’t make the switch? Though, reusable bags come with environmental costs, and even that depends on the material of the bag.  Reusable bags may be made from durable plastics, polypropylene, conventional cotton, organic cotton, polyester, bioplastics, canvas, hemp, jute modal, or recycled materials to name a few. Each type of bag leaves its environmental footprint, but it’s worth noting that the key to reducing impact is to reuse it as many times as possible and one may need to use it up to 149 times to equal the impact of one single-use plastic bag.  So, which reusable bag is the best replacement? There is no simple answer.  However, a kind of research called “life cycle assessment” can offer a basic guide outlining the impact of reusable bags and to help determine the most responsible choice when considering which environmental factors are the most important to you.   

    The Verdict

    As research continues, the right information is essential when making responsible decisions. Ultimately, the most sustainable bag is the one you will use over and over again.

    Lead image: Photo by Guus Baggermans

    Written by Angela Polimeni

    Angela Polimeni

    Angela Polimeni is a second language acquisition educator in Buffalo, creator of Eco Tee Co and Co-Founder of Shift/Co ™️.

    View All Articles by Angela Polimeni
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