Plastic or paper: which bags actually pollute the least?

Plastic or paper: which bags actually pollute the least?


One-use bags are the most polluting, but easiest to produce.

It is a question whose answer may seem obvious but it is not: are paper bags less polluting than plastic bags?

The supermarket chain Morrisons, in the United Kingdom, is doing an experiment: recently increased the price of reusable plastic bags to 15 to 20 cents, and introduced a paper that costs 20 cents.

The two-month trial at some of its stores seeks to encourage consumers to reduce the use of plastic bags in an effort to help the environment.

But are plastic bags really more polluting?

To answer it, we must consider four other questions:

  • How much energy is used to make the bag during manufacturing?
  • How durable is the bag? How many times can it be reused?
  • How easy is it to recycle ?
  • How fast does it break down after being thrown away?

Here are some answers to this.

“Four times more energy”

A research paper prepared by the Assembly of Northern Ireland in 2011 indicated that “it takes four times more energy to make a paper bag than a plastic bag.”

Unlike plastic bags (which according to the report are produced from the waste products of oil refining), paper requires that forests be cut down to produce the bags.

People load paper bags
Copyright of the GETTY IMAGES image
Image caption Paper bags should be reused at least three times to compensate for the impact of their production.


The manufacturing process, according to the research, also produces a higher concentration of toxic chemicals compared to the manufacture of disposable plastic bags.

Paper bags also weigh more than plastic, which means that transportation requires more energy , which adds to their carbon footprint, the study adds.

The company Morrisons, however, ensures that the material used to make their paper bags is obtained in 100% of the forests that are managed responsibly.

And if new forests are cultivated to replace lost trees, this will help offset the impact of climate change.

Reu SING is the key

The British Environment Agency examined in 2006 a range of bags made of different materials to find out how many times they should be reused to help the environment, instead of just using it once.

The study found that paper bags had to be reused at least three times , one less than reusable plastic bags, that is, the more resistant ones known as “green bags”.

One person uses a reusable bag
Copyright of the GETTY IMAGES image
Image caption The key to reducing the environmental impact of bag production is its reuse.


At the other end of the spectrum, the same agency found that bags made of cotton required the greatest amount of reuse: 131.

This was due to the high amount of energy used to produce and fertilize cotton yarn.

But even if a paper bag requires the least number of times to be reused, there is a practical consideration: will the bag last long enough to sustain at least three trips to the supermarket?

Paper bags are not as durable as reusable plastic bags, as they are more likely to tear or break , especially if they get wet.

In its conclusion, the Environment Agency says that “in general it is unlikely that the paper bag can be reused the number of times required due to its low durability.”

A person holds plastic bags
Copyright of the GETTY IMAGES image
Image caption Plastic bags can take between 400 and 1,000 years to disintegrate, which has a great impact on the environment.


Morrisons insists that there is no reason why your paper bag can not be reused as many times as the plastic bag it replaces, but it depends on how the bag is treated.

The cotton bags , even though its manufacturing footprint leaves a larger carbon, are more durable and have a much longer life.

Despite its low durability, one advantage of paper is that it decomposes much more quickly than plastic and, therefore, is less likely to be a source of garbage and pose a risk to wildlife.

Paper is also more recyclable, while plastic bags can take between 400 and 1,000 years to decompose.

So, what is the best?

Paper bags require a little more reuse than reusable plastic bags to be more environmentally friendly than single-use plastic bags.

A woman buys vegetables
Copyright of the GETTY IMAGES image
Image caption Experts point out that a good part of the problem is that people do not carry shopping bags, so they buy more.


On the other hand, paper bags are less durable than other types of bags.

So, if buyers have to replace paper ones more frequently, it will have a greater environmental effect.

But the key to reducing the environmental impact of the bags, no matter what they are made of, is to reuse them as much as possible , says Margaret Bates, professor of sustainable waste management at the University of Northampton, United Kingdom.

Many people forget to take their reusable bags on their trip to the supermarket and end up consuming more in the payment box.

This will have a much greater environmental impact compared to the simple choice of using paper, plastic or cotton.

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Rava Desk

Rava is an online news portal providing recent news, editorials, opinions and advice on day to day happenings in Pakistan.


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