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Paper or Plastic when Neither isn't an Option Answered

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


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.


10 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.

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 :)

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.

But brown paper bags don't get bleached, do they? That's usually the type available at the grocery.

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.

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 :/

Yes, I think you're right about the energy required to recycle paper compared to plastics. I forgot to take that in consideration in the balance. Though, I have absolutely no idea about how much it is polluting compared to plastics recycling. I just know lots of efforts have been done and are still are being done.

About plastic bags, they are generally not recycled here ... They're burned with other burnable garbages ... There is an effort to try to "burn them intelligently" though : we try to "recycle" the energy generated by the combustion for public heating or to produce electricity.

About recycled paper, we make :
- towel paper, roughbooks/scratchpads, books, magazines, newspaper, carton, prospectus, etc ... (everything with low quality paper)
But we also produce paper and books of good quality (a certain proportion of fresh cellulose is generally added though, but it's possible to get a recycled paper of good quality and solid).

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 :/

I can't give you exact (or even approximate) numbers, but I just know that trees are stocks of carbons. They absorb the carbon and convert and use it to "build" themselves and grow.
When we burn a tree, it's like if we vaporized an ice-cube. An other ice-cube of the same size will contain the same quantity of water than the vaporized one. If we plant a new tree and let it grow to the same size than the burned one, the new tree will contain as much carbon as the burned one : all the emitted CO2 will be reabsorbed.

I don't know how to explain it simply in English :
- we have several generations of artificial forests : 30 years old forests, 25 years old forest, 20 years old forest etc ... so, when we cut 30 years old trees, we plant a new generation of trees. There is a "rotation" ...

Wait wait ... lol ... I'm explaining all of that like if it was new, but there must be something similar in USA, isn't it ? =oP

Yes; all these issues that remain unspoken: the landfill issues, the differences between managed and virgin forests, use of recycled material. For instance, I'd think that paper manufacturing is a very efficient user of trees (compared to the lumber industry, for instance); you can use almost all of the tree, or even waste material from other uses of trees. Environmental questions have a lot of complex issues involves, and frankly there aren't many source of information that I trust very much; too many conflicts of interest, too much politics, too much band-wagoning. (This became particularly apparent with the disposable diaper issue: is it better to overburden the landfills with disposable diapers, or overburden waste water processing by washing diapers? And where do diaper services fit into the equation?)

You might be shocked at the number of trees harvested just to make papers for cigarette makers. This has been declining a bit but it is a huge demand upon forests. Sadly, controlled growth forests are simply another form of pollution. When species are selected for planting by man nature is set into a serious imbalance. It is an extension of "sprawl". We need fairly large sections of land that are exempt from all human activities in order to preserve our environment. Frankly there is no way to achieve such a goal other than working towards a much smaller world population.

Frankly there is no way to achieve such a goal other than working towards a much smaller world population.

If you see that as the only solution, you're not looking hard enough.

Sadly, controlled growth forests are simply another form of pollution. When species are selected for planting by man nature is set into a serious imbalance.

Anyway Nature is already very disturbed ... and is adapting itself to the new conditions ... :o/

For instance, because of the global warming, we're observing a "migration" of species of trees and plants in Europe.
Southern species are moving north, replacing local species that are also moving north.

Artificial forests do not replace natural forests. They are simple "field of trees", like we have field of wheat or vineyards (and we have really a lot of vineyards here ........ too much IMO .... more even since I don't drink wine !).

When we want to regenerate a natural forest, we usually plant local species. We simply try to "help" and "heal" the nature by doing the same thing she does.

I'm sure there is plenty space in USA to plant artificial forests. If there are enough space in Europe where we are about 700 millions of peoples for about 10 millions of squared kilometers, there must be enough place in USA where there is only 300 millions of peoples for almost the same area.

About overburden garbages (more even with things like diapers), it is possible to overburden them "intelligently" if they are 100% biodegradable. Once overburdened they produce gases like methane. It is possible to collect it and use it. Also, there is the possibility to use them directly as a combustible instead of coal, and to generate heat and electricity ... With appropriate filters on the chimney, eventual toxic gases will be collected, and the plant will only release CO2 and vapor of water. As diapers are mainly made of vegetable matters (as far as i recall, that's what they are supposed to be made with), they could be a part of a CO2 cycle ... :o/

"I'm explaining all of that like if it was new, but there must be something similar in USA, isn't it ? =oP"

I don't know why you assume that the US is anywhere close to the rest of the civilized world in this respect. This is the country that flipped the bird at the Kyoto protocol, remember? Highest amount of CO2 produced per capita? Home of the SUV, land of the consumers?

No, there is no such nation-wide program to replenish forests in the US. Nor are there effective nation-wide recycling programs.

There *are* local programs. For example, California is doing reasonably well at recycling. But go out into the "heartland", and you may not see a recycling bin for hundreds of miles...

Damn ... that's sad ...
I knew USA was allergic to the idea of doing more effort to reduce CO2 emission, but I was more optimistic about recycling programs ...

I can't believe they harvest their forests without replanting new ones ... Forests are not unlimited resources after all. =o/

I think the prevailing attitude has been that the US has so much unspoiled nature left, that we can afford to squander it... :-/

Oh for pete's sake. We still have vastly more trees now than we did in 1900. Because we planted them. Most of us out in "the heartland" do our own recycling and burn our own trash. Waste not, want not.

Huh? A lot of the lumber companies in the US claim to be doing forest management (inc replanting, etc), and as far as I know a lot of it actually happens. Although we also get a lot of publicity about assorted proposals to harvest "old growth" forests that were previously on protected federal lands...

Yes, but most of the replanting in the US is dependent on economic *profitability*, not any concern for the environment. Clear cutting virgin forest will always be vastly more profitable than replanting. And if the lumber companies do replant, they will tend to focus on ver fast growing species, like poplar etc. Hardly a replacement for old growth...

I forgot to mention : - fresh cellulose for paper production is generally a side-product of wood for construction : sawdust. We try not to cut trees just for paper production.


10 years ago

When I forget my reusable bags, I generally go for paper bags as I'm more likely to reuse them. I figure that a couple of reuses changes the balance significantly if the rest of it is a virtual wash.

It is true that as time has progressed, the plastic that we use no longer comes solely from non-renewable hydrocarbons. However, even if you were to send plastic bags off to a recycling plant/facility, in hopes of it being recycled and not using any more hydrocarbons as needed. Sadly that is not the case. every time a plastic bag is recycled, the use of new, non-renewable hydrocarbons still remains. Although it is not in as high of an amount as in the initial construction of the bag, there has to be some new plastic added in order to create either new bags from the old ones or something new entirely. Paper bags, though, are not made of white paper like you would use in say a classroom or office to print or write on. That paper requires the bleaching processes in order for it to be white in color. Now whether or not the brown paper bags do also, although I implied that I was aware in my pervious statement, I can't imagine why they would need to. If they would in the initial construction of the bags, they certainly wouldnt need to do so once a bag has been made and has been returned for recycling. The bag is already the same color, and the only processing that would need to be made would be grinding up the bags in water, and using screens to collect the fine pulp and let it dry to form more sheets of paper and make more bags, or anything else made of paper. In the long run, however, it is more cost effective and more energy efficient for people to bring their own bags. These bags would only consume as many resources as was needed to make them and then that family wont need to use any more paper or plastic in the grocery shopping. Additionally, these bags wouldnt consume nearly as much energy as making new plastic/paper or recycling plastic and paper bags. There would be an initial investment of energy, but in the end, the net use of energy would be far lower than it is now concerning grocery bags. As a side note, these bags that people bring from home, tend to be much stronger and will hold many more items than any plastic or paper bag, especially if they are packed correctly. This would allow people to need less bags still, adding to the whole benefit of neither. All in all, I would have to say that if "neither" wasnt an option, then i would go with paper. For one thing, it has more strength than plastic, and doenst consume any new resources when it is recycled in a facility (aside from the new resources that are required to produce the energy necessary for recycling). Harris Teeter, a local grocery chain, has even begun to use 100% recycled paper bags, which adds to the benefit of using them from there. Check your grocer and see how much is recycled and if they offer recycling options. If they do, take full advantage of them. And i know that they really do recycle because i have worked at a Harris Teeter for almost two years and have had to take the recycling back to the loading dock numbers of times. This isnt an ad for Harris Teeter, Im just putting what I know.

Perhaps some sort of aluminum alloy-fiber bag? Or even a carbon fiber bag, that'd be cool! I really don't know my figures on the whole recycling issue, but I'd assume Kiteman's correct.

Trader Joes has inexpensive $1.00 bags that are a plastic sort.

wegmens sell high quality bags that you bring, plus they're recycled.

Couldn't we lessen the amount of solid waste of plastic by just constantly using our plastic bags? In other words, not throwing them away, and using them for a very long time.

I've actually heard that plastic is better if you can't avoid it, but I really try to avoid them all together. Whole Foods sells reuseable bags for a dollar, and so do Meijer and Kroger. At Half Price Books, we're selling some big ones for two. You can find them at craft stores too. :D

At our house, we reuse both. The kitchen trash can is sized perfectly to use paper bags as liners, but other trash cans and the litter box need plastic. I think a better answer would be "whichever you are most likely to reuse or recycle."

We re-use both too, with the paper bags typically eventually ending up in paper recycling, while the plastic bags eventually end up in the landfill. The thing that bugs me is that landfills are designed to NOT allow things to decompose, some some otherwise interesting arguments are irrelevant.