Paper v. Plastic: Paper Bags Use Natural Resources

man cutting down a tree with a chainsaw

Making sustainable choices for the environment starts with understanding the facts. Here’s one that might surprise you: paper bags require significantly more natural resources and energy to create than plastic bags. In short, they are much harder for the Earth to produce.

Let’s take a further look:

A brief overview: the bag creation process
The paper bag creation process: Once a tree is cut down, it’s typically run through a debarking process and then chipped into smaller pieces. From there, the chips are cooked in a big pressure cooker to separate the fibers and then bleached to remove discoloration. The final pulp is sent to a paper mill and mixed with water and other additives until it turns into a paper that can be manufactured into bags.

The plastic bag creation process: Raw materials like natural gas, oil, or plants are refined into ethane and propane, then heated to turn them into gas. Once combined with a catalyst, the gas turns into a powder, which is melted into a long, thin plastic tube and then into pellets. The pellets can then be heated to expand into plastic sheets, which become plastic bags. 

Paper bags require much more energy and water to produce than plastic.
In a study of 1,500 plastic bags versus 1,000 paper bags (different numbers to account for carrying capacity), plastic bags required 58 gallons of fresh water to produce. Paper bags, on the other hand? A whopping 1,004 gallons. 

Energy use totaled 763 megajoules for the plastic bags and 2,622 megajoules for the paper bags. In more ordinary terms, the plastic bags used the energy equivalent of about 6 gallons of gasoline; the paper bags used the energy equivalent of about 20 gallons.

Plastic bags contribute to closed-loop practices, with the capacity to be endlessly recycled and turned back into pellets, significantly reducing the need to use natural resources. On the other hand, paper bags are made from fibers with a short, limited lifespan.

Paper bags require more virgin resources
Plastic bags were invented in the 1960s, in part, to reduce the number of trees cut down to produce paper bags. Paper bags require many virgin trees: according to one source, it takes an entire 15— 20-year-old tree to make only 700 paper bags. Humanity releases more CO2 than the planet’s existing trees can take in, leading to our current global warming crisis. We need less deforestation, not more paper bags.

“Paper or plastic?” It’s no contest.
All of the information above lends weight to a comment by David Allaway of Oregon's Department of Environmental Quality: “The public believes materials come to us free of impact, and all we have to think about is composting versus landfilling or recycling. In reality, it’s not quite true. By the time we buy this stuff most of the environmental impact has been done.” 

Indeed, all materials have their impact. But it’s clear that in the classic choice, “Paper, or plastic?” plastic is the clear winner when it comes to minimizing environmental impact.