Paper or Plastic? Posted on April 06, 2009 by Dave Fowler

I'm probably the last person to look this up but I've often wondered what the best answer to "Paper or Plastic?" really is. The best answer ofcourse is neither. I should bring my own bags, but I rarely preform ideally so that aside what's the best?

It seems like paper would be more environmentally friendly because its renewable and degrades much faster. Also its brown and reminds you of nature, so that has to be better environmentally right? Plastic bags use up a lot of oil, which we know is not nonrenewable. But then how much oil is used to make paper bags? Cutting down all those trees, shipping them, printing, gluing, etc. The more extensive manufacturing process must take a considerable amount of oil right?

This article gives some quick facts on the costs of each:

To make all the bags we use each year, it takes 14 million trees for paper and 12 million barrels of oil for plastic. The production of paper bags creates 70 percent more air pollution than plastic, but plastic bags create four times the solid waste — enough to fill the Empire State Building two and a half times. And they can last up to a thousand years.

Another great article suggests further proves that there is no consensus on the issue:

Both paper and plastic bags consume large amounts of natural resources and the majority will eventually end up in the landfill. Both bags can be recycled to some extent and can be utilized around the house. I’ve read several studies comparing the two choices and none of them agree.

Drats! I hate issues with no clear answer. The first article suggests that there are bio-degradable plastic bags that take only a few weeks to break down. That would be the ideal solution, but they're rarely a choice.

For now I think I'm going to go with plastic on this one but with the intent to save the bags and recycle them. The plastic uses less resources and polutes less. Recycling them should reduce their significant impact which is in all the garbage they produce. I'm also going to continue to not take a bag when one is not required. Too often I see people check out with one or two small items and walk off with them in a bag. If you don't need the bag, don't use it.

Update: My friend Natalie recently shared this clever video promoting careful use of your plastic bags.