The answer depends.
Each has benefits over the other. At PreZero US we specialize in making reusable poly bags out of recycled material for the grocery and retail industries. To make an informed decision, you must look at the full scope for each material.
While proponents of paper will immediately point to the recyclability of paper over plastic, it’s important to note that all paper bags are not created equal. Many paper bags used in retail are heavily coated with plastic liners and inks that render them unrecyclable. Another element that effects recyclability of paper are the elements themselves. When paper bags get wet or become soiled with food and other debris, the quality of the paper is degraded and at that point, it’s more likely to become trash than another paper product.
Just as it’s important to differentiate between types of paper bags, it’s always imperative that we also separate single-use plastic bags from reusable poly bags made from recycled content. PreZero retail and grocery poly bags are made with at least 40% post-consumer recycled (PCR) content and are certified for at least 125 uses.
When we reuse the same material multiple times, the environmental benefit is even greater than that of recycling because no further processing or manufacturing needs to be done. There is a reason that reuse comes before recycle in the mantra reduce, reuse, recycle. Even when poly bags get dirty, they can be hand or machine washed and reused again without quality loss.
We must also assess the resources used in the production and transport of both types of goods carriers. According to a 2011 report Life Cycle Assessment of Reusable and Single-use Plastic Bags published by California State University-Chico, the production of paper bags uses more energy and water than that of reusable plastic bags and results in greater carbon emissions.
From a cost savings perspective, opting for reusable poly bags can save businesses on freight and increase available space at distribution centers as reusable plastic bags take up less space than their paper counterparts. When compared to paper, if purchasing 1 million reusable poly bags, companies would be transporting and storing over 100,000 lbs less material (three truckloads worth).
Circling back to recyclability, PreZero US has the equipment to reprocess the plastic bags we produce into new bags. The challenge lies in collecting the material. That is why we are big advocates for the implementation and enforcement of store take back programs by local governments so we can more easily recover this valuable material and close the loop.
Life Cycle Assessment of Reusable and Single-use Plastic Bags (2011)
California State University - Chico
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