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Paper or Plastic when Neither isn't an Option

Paper... Or Plastic?

The choice touted by environmentalists is... Neither - Bring your own bag and reuse it... But lets face the facts, not answer the question of paper or plastic isn't helping the majority of people who can easily make change but not willing to carry in a bag.... Honestly, it's almost sounds like an ego trip to hear "Neither" as the answer to this genuine question as asked (anyone agree with me?).

Back on track... Paper or Plastic? Because most people, to my knowledge, do not bring their own bags - which is more eco-friendly? Please bring what knowledge you find to the table as a collaborative discussion :)

Thus far, here's what I've found...

Paper consumes 14 million trees
Plastic consumes 12 million barrels

Paper creates 70% more air pollution than plastic
Plastic creates 400% more solid waste than paper

The average American family (4) will consume about 1500 plastic bags annually


Additionally - does anyone know if cellulose plastic is used for grocery bags? If you're wondering what that is... Basically, it's taking cellulose (could be from trees) and making a plastic with it (such as cellophane among others).

I am, as far as I know, the only person in my area that brings my own bag... It happens to be a plastic, vinyl and mylar soft sided cooler - but it has served me well.

The floor is yours

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Goodhart9 years ago
From my point of view, my perspective demands the answer of "either". :-) If we are in need of paper bags at home (they have many Many uses, or should I say, re-uses), and the same with the plastic ones. If we have an overabundance of one, we switch. Eventually they all go back to being recycled (or in the case of the paper, eventually composted). So that we do not overuse any one type we switch and get the best of both worlds.
BTW: the method my wife buys groceries prevent us from having any other type of bag to use instead of those supplied by the store. Nevertheless, if we have an overabundance of paper on hand, we normally go to the local Giant food store, and they pay back a few cents per bag to use our own. Then, when they are no longer useful as bags, they get to be used for other things (paper can be used for Cavy cage lining, bird cage lining, book covers, etc, etc.). Tis the way I have always looked at this.
hassi9 years ago
We've been using canvas tote bags for quite a few years now. We keep them in, what we call, the bag of bags and grab it when we head out the door to go shopping. Naturally, if we're out and decide to pick up something that's simply too big (or too numerous) to hand carry, we'll usually opt for paper (easily recyclable with the newspapers). However, many of the stores here have set up boxes to take used plastic shopping bags which pretty well evens out the recycling issue. I suppose if we were "truly" interested in using our canvas bags all the time, we'd keep some in the car. Back to the point... If a person isn't using their own bags, the decision as to paper or plastic most likely will be based on which more easily recycled locally. If plastic bag recycling is not available then shoot for paper. I honestly don't know which is least demanding to recycle, paper or plastic. In the long run it may be a moot point. This really isn't an "either-or" argument. Nor is it a "one-size-fits-all" discussion. Here in the US (as noted elsewhere in this forum) there are no national standards for recycling. One must simply do as best as one can all the while lobbying and petitioning the powers that be for standardization. Until that time comes conservation is simply the best alternative. We here in the US have a long way to go before we're up to global standards (on SOOOOOO many issues). Alas, some are trying to help while others are simply trying.
Making paper may consume 12 million tree's, thats assuming it's not made from cloth, hemp or re-cycled products. Even some paper you handle every day is really plastic, put ur hand in ur purse or wallet out... That 5£ or $ note is made from plastic.
trebuchet03 (author)  Green Silver9 years ago
Making paper may consume 12 million tree's, thats assuming it's not made from cloth, hemp or re-cycled products.

You're right - but it's not assuming.... That's the number excludes resources other than tress :)
Kiteman9 years ago
My data may be out of date, but the answer is actually plastic.

Although paper is made of renewable trees, and polythene is sourced from non-renewable fossil fuels, both are recyclable. Paper manufacture actually releases more pollutants into the environment, in the form of bleaching agents, dioxins and organic waste that depletes the oxygen in rivers.

The reason plastic bags get bad press is because they are usually non-biodegradable, so when careless humans litter with them, they hang around and cause a lot of visual pollution and damages animals (the classic example is turtle choking on plastic bags mistaken for jellyfish).

However, more and more plastics are either being made from renewable raw materials (such as starch), or the long polymers are being made with weak links that are vulnerable to UV radiation, meaning sunlight breaks them down.

Coincidentally, this month's Scientific American contains an advert from BASF for its new "Ecoflex" plastic film that is shelf-stable for a year, but also able to be disposed of via composting.


To your question, though, my best answer is preferably neither, otherwise plastic.

A lot of people in the UK do bring their own bags to the supermarket, and the number is growing (Tesco, for instance, offers more loyalty points if you don't use a new carrier bag). We keep a pile of strong bags in the boot of the car ("trunk") for main shopping trips, and if I'm just going for a few things I'll walk and take a rucksack.

Unfortunately, this good behaviour means that we now have to buy garbage bags for the waste we have that does not recycle in some way.
canida Kiteman9 years ago
But brown paper bags don't get bleached, do they? That's usually the type available at the grocery.
Kiteman canida9 years ago
Actually, a lot do - they are then dyed to look just the right shade of brown the public expects - unbleached paper pulp can vary in shade, and smells unpleasant.

Of course, as I said, my data may be out of date, but the only brown bags commonly used in the UK have small quantities of loose fruit and vegetables in them from corner stores. The vast majority of paper bags used in the UK are white and printed, whether they are small bags for sweets or the bags used by bakers to put individual cakes in.

(Yes, I know Joe Public doesn't care about the exact shade of the bags, but they are sold in bulk, by the hundreds of thousands, and if the colour visibly changes from one pallet-full to the next, there is a subconscious message that the quality or thickness also vary.)
Aren't paper bag recyclable ? I don't know in USA, but here is how it works here : - we try to recycle as much paper as possible into new paper, paper towel, carton, etc ... Sometimes, we add some new fresh cellulose to the process to increase the quality of the final recycled product, or to complete the missing quantity ... - in parallel, we plant and maintain forests. We try to maintain a certain quantity of adult trees. More trees is OK. Less trees is not. - the CO2 emitted by the combustion of non recycled papers will be reabsorbed by the new trees we plant. In other words, we try to keep a certain CO2 cycle : we burn a tree, we plant a tree and the CO2 emitted by the burned tree is reabsorbed by the new tree. About plastics bags : - we try to reuse the same bag again and again - in most shops and commercial centers, they sell plastic bags (so, as we have to pay, we usually try to take only what is required) - we try to make all of these plastics bag with biodegradable matters (like corn starch for instance), and they are generally designed to be reused as garbage plastics ... Though, there are still a lot of plastics bags made from petroleum. When they burn, they release CO2 that was extracted from the ground : unlike paper, this CO2 is not part of a cycle (unless we plant more forests to reabsorb it). IMHO, there is cycle of CO2 for papers (and thus, a possible balance). And there is no cycle for CO2 from petroleum.
trebuchet03 (author)  chooseausername9 years ago
Do you know the energy difference in recycling the two? My ignorant guess would be that paper takes quite a bit more energy (and water)....

I also recall reading that recycled paper may not be as strong as virgin paper - which, for bags, is not a great thing and why you're more likely to see recycled paper in things like paper towels among other non structural items...

I've also read (in Readymade's book - not sure on accuracy, seems believable) that many plastics we use every day have a finite number of life cycles (something like two recycle phases)... I can't seem any info to the contrary or supporting it though....


Interesting point on CO2 cycle, I didn't even consider that :) Keep in mind though.... A tree consumes about 48 pounds of CO2 per year - I'd think burning a tree older than a year will emit more CO2 than 48 pounds :/
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