Paper v. Plastic: Paper Bags Use More Water to Create

pipes with water runoff

Paper bags get a lot of good press in some environmental circles, but largely because they ride the coattails of trees, giving them a connection to nature. But that connection also involves a significant toll on another natural resource: water.

This begs the question of how good paper bags really are compared to their plastic counterparts.

As Stanford Magazine put it, paper bags offer certain advantages, “But producing them in quantity requires a lot of water, fuel, and cut-down trees. And they usually aren’t made from recycled material because new paper has longer, stronger fibers.” 

The more paper is chopped and pulped with water, the shorter and weaker its fibers become, making it less useful to the recycling process. If paper could use conditioner and dye the way comeback-tour rock stars do to keep their long hair in shape, it probably would!

Water, water everywhere…but for how long?

Behind that Stanford Magazine reference to “a lot of water” is concern about water demand in general. While we often hear about water pollution, today, another threat looms…the water supply is running short, even here in the United States.

Sure, the oceans have plenty of water, but that’s saltwater. The freshwater we all count on for drinking, cooking, bathing, and agricultural irrigation is expected to be in shorter and shorter supply as the 21st century progresses due to shifting weather patterns and population growth.

In broad strokes, wet areas are getting wetter, dry areas are getting dryer, changing weather is affecting the timing of snowmelt from mountains, preventing the right amount of water from collecting where it’s needed, and all that is expected to cause a serious imbalance in the availability of freshwater. Some scientists are predicting the likelihood of serious water shortages in some regions.

Choose plastic bags to save water.

Yep, you read that right. Environmentalists can call for eliminating plastics all they want; that doesn’t change the fact that plastic uses up far fewer resources than paper. It’s the environmentally smart choice. 

In a study of 1,000 plastic bags versus 1,500 plastic bags (the numbers differ to account for carrying capacity), the plastic bags used only 58 gallons of fresh water in production, whereas the paper bags used more than 1,000 gallons.

Most of the water used for making paper bags happens during the pulping of wood, heating and cleaning the pulp — using large tanks—and then transporting the pulp between machines using a water flow. If the bags are brown, the water used in the process begins to taper off because they don’t go through the bleaching process used to make white paper.

However, since it takes an entire 15-20-year-old tree to make about 700 bags, you can imagine how much water is involved in processing the pulp for the millions of bags being made today.

Compared to the water required to make paper bags, water use in plastic bag manufacturing is a fraction of what it is for paper bags—only about 6%.

Aside from soaking up tons of water, tree farming and paper manufacturing are known users of fertilizers and chemicals that contribute to acid rain and foliage overgrowth in waterways that cut off oxygen in fish habitats.

Switching to plastic bags and committing to recycling them will go a long way to preserving water supplies and keeping our environment safe for both people and wildlife.