Is paper greener than plastic; not exactly. The production of both products has a significant impact on the environment.
It can be argued that by simply replacing one with the other we are not solving our current global waste problem. However, if you must choose, which one is better?
As consumers, we are constantly overwhelmed with clever marketing campaigns, new product options, greenwashing and pressure to make the best choice for ourselves, our family and our planet. When it comes to shopping bags, which product packaging is best?
For many years, single-use plastic bags were the first and sometimes the only option but recently that has changed.
Today we better understand the impact plastic has on the natural environment and we can choose different materials which are said to be more sustainable or eco-friendly.
Is paper really more sustainable than plastic or is it just a shortcut option to make us feel better about our choices?
If all we do is switch from plastic to paper, we’re solving one set of environmental problems and adding others.
Large amounts of water pollution and air pollution are produced in the manufacturing and transportation of paper.
It’s an energy-intensive process to take a piece of lumber and turn it into a smooth, flat, printable piece of paper.
- Eric Goldstein, Senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defence Council
In this article, I will go through the impacts of producing plastic and paper and learn a few surprising statistics. Is there an even better option that can replace both plastic and paper? Let's see.
Life Cycle Analysis
Life cycle analysis allows us to understand the environmental impacts of different products. This is achieved by calculating the impacts of each stage of the product’s life. Stages go from the extraction of the raw materials to the final disposal of the product.
Key life stages of paper and plastic bags production are:
Raw materials extraction (Wood for paper bags and oil for plastic bags)
Materials manufacturing (Paper pulp and plastic pellets)
Through all these stages we can calculate different impact categories:
Greenhouse gas emissions
For each category, we need to add the impacts of each production stage to get the total impact of the product.
Let’s Compare Paper & Plastic
Lucky for us, researchers have already developed these studies and made the calculations.
One thing to consider is that this study considered a carrying capacity equivalent to 1000 paper bags to compare both products. This makes sense since it wouldn’t be correct to compare one paper bag and one plastic bag if their carrying capacity is different.
Impact Summary of Various Bag Types
Carrying Capacity Equivalent to 1000 Paper Bags
Paper (made with 30% recycled fibre)
Total Energy Usage: 2622 MJ
Fossil Fuel Use: 23.2 kg
Municipal Solid Waste: 33.9 kg
Greenhouse Gas Emissions (CO2 Equiv. Tons): 0.08
Compostable Plastic (a product which can decompose naturally)
Total Energy Usage: 2070 MJ
Fossil Fuel Use: 41.5 kg
Municipal Solid Waste: 19.2 kg
Greenhouse Gas Emissions (CO2 Equiv. Tons): 0.18
Polyethylene (the most common plastic in use today)
Total Energy Usage: 763 MJ
Fossil Fuel Use: 14.9 kg
Municipal Solid Waste: 7.0 kg
Greenhouse Gas Emissions (CO2 Equiv. Tons): 0.04
The chart above shows paper bag production uses more fossil fuels and produces more waste than plastic bags but creates less greenhouse gas emissions. The total overall energy use is almost the same.
So you may be surprised by these results. I was to the first time I saw them. Turns out the environmental impacts of paper bags are higher than plastic bags.
This is because the paper manufacturing process is very energy-intensive and generates a lot of waste. Paper bag production requires large amounts of water, energy, and chemicals, and can emit toxic and hazardous chemicals into the air and water. Furthermore, paper bags are five to seven times heavier than plastic, and therefore require additional transportation which leads to more air pollution.
One reason we can choose paper of plastic, especially recycled paper, is that it breaks down in the natural environment easier and faster when compared to plastic.
Paper bags can be recycled or composted whereas plastic bags can take 1000 years to break down leaving behind harmful microplastics.
"The science shows that moving from plastic to paper is not necessarily greener. Instead, it may simply shift the environmental impact from decreasing litter to increasing resource use and greenhouse gas emissions".
- Northwestern University’s Eric Masanet, PhD, Eco Myths
What Is The Problem With Plastic Bags?
Well, there are two good reasons for worldwide “no-plastic” campaigns. Plastic bags are made from fossil fuels. That means they come from a non-renewable source, which is also the main cause of the climate change situation we are experiencing today.
Fossil fuel extraction has to merge in order to make the transition we need to a greener world.
Plastic bags have a really long degradation time; up to 1000 years
This means that when plastic bags are not correctly disposed of, they may end up in natural environments and stay there a long, long time. This is nothing new, we have seen seas contaminated with plastic bags and there are even plastic islands out there for some time now.
Our dependence on single-use plastic bags needs to change; and fast. Plastic shopping bags are not sustainable and we can start making a difference today by swapping to a reusable product that has a lower environmental impact.
What About Reusable Eco-Friendly Bags?
Well reusable bags do seem like the greenest option out there, don’t they? But let me tell you that you should be careful about these too. Reusable bags are made out of either PP (polypropylene) or cotton. And the environmental impacts of these materials can be up to 100 times higher than the impacts of paper bags for most impact categories.
According to a study developed by the Environmental Agency of the UK
In order to compensate for the impacts of these reusable bags, we need to use them at least 11 time (for the PP bag) and 131 times (for the cotton bag).
If you use them less than this amount of times, you might as well use a single-use plastic bag and the overall environmental impact would be lower. So yes, reusable bags can indeed be the greenest option. But only as long as we use them enough times to amortize all the resources and energy used in the manufacturing processes.
Paper versus plastic bags can seem like a loose-loose situation. As consumers what is the best approach?
Making a swap from a number of single-use plastic bags to recycled paper bags to a reusable tote bag or reusable container will make a difference.
Keeping plastic out of the landfill, the oceans and our community is very important but understanding that a simple swap to paper doesn't instantly solve the problem.
Be mindful of purchasing habits, consider ways to buy less or waste less. The more we start to shift towards reusable alternatives that have a longer lifespan the sooner we can start to shift our need for single-use products.
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About The Writer
Belén Silva is a Chemical engineer from Argentina. She started her freelance writing and environmental consulting career after working for many years in the automotive industry as an environmental engineer. In addition, she has a personal project of environmental communications that includes a blog, an Instagram account and a Youtube channel. You can read more from her on her website Idonella.
Cherie Julie, Founder of Travel For Change.
Muthu, S.S., Li, Y., Hu, J. & Mok, T., (2009) “An Exploratory Comparative Study on Eco-Impact of Paper and Plastic Bags”, Journal of Fiber Bioengineering and Informatics, (1-4) 307-320.
Chet Chaffee and Bernard R. Yaros; Boustead Consulting & Associates Ltd.” Life Cycle Assessment for Three Types of Grocery Bags - Recyclable Plastic; Compostable,
Environmental Agency UK, Life cycle assessment of supermarket carrier bags: a review of the bags available in 2006, 2011.