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Are Paper Bags Better than Plastic Bags?

Updated: Oct 28, 2020

Trying to Answer the Perplexing Question "Are Paper Bags Better for the Environment than Plastic Ones?"

The humble paper bag. First manufactured in Bristol, England, in 1844 and brought to the masses thanks to Francis Wolle's invention; the paper bag-making machine in 1852, these unpretentious modes of packaging became a firm fixture - and favourite - in many a person's daily life. Why? Because as with all great inventions, brown paper bags filled a need that people didn’t know they had. Before them, baskets, bowls and wooden crates were the main packaging and storage solution found in every home and every shop, so it's easy to understand why the creation of such a convenient and affordable disposable container was absolutely revolutionary.

Still popular to this day in the US, brown paper bags fell out of favour here in the UK in the 1970's as plastic was seen as a more durable material to make carrier bags from. Now we're seeing a resurgence of them here in Blighty - primarily thanks to their eco credentials - or at least thanks to the eco-elegant perception that people have of them - not to mention that their low cost and ease of use makes them widely accessible for businesses and shoppers of even modest means.

However, after a research paper produced by the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2011 revealed; "it takes more than four times as much energy to manufacture a paper bag as it does to manufacture a plastic bag"[1], people started to question whether paper bags were really good-for-the-planet or whether the Irish were just playing devil's advocate.

Sustainability expert Chris Goodall, inclined to agree with the Northern Ireland Assembly, expressed his opinions to The Guardian last year about the matter, branding the re-introduction of paper bags a “retrograde step for efforts [in] tackl[ing] climate change" which stemmed from "a misunderstanding of the causes of plastic pollution"[2] and the misconceptions about how plastic bags are made and how landfills work.

But when you consider that paper bags can be made using recycled materials; that their virgin materials can come from sustainable sources and that their waste can be naturally composted, the debate as to whether Kraft paper bags are better for the planet or not becomes quite the thorny and complex argument. The key then to assessing the comparative environmental impacts of each material is not a simple matter; it requires consideration of every stage of the life cycle of each product.

So, Are Paper Bags Good or Bad for the Environment?

The short answer, as frustrating as it might be, is both. Like most things in life - and most packaging products - there are environmental pros and cons to manufacturing and using brown paper bags.

All types of carrier bag, whether made from plastic, paper, jute or cotton will have some impact on the environment during their manufacturing and decomposition processes.

Paper Bags: Why They're Good for the Earth

On the one hand, paper bags are more environmentally-friendly than plastic carriers because:

Despite requiring trees to be cut down to make them, forests are renewable resources and, if managed responsibly are also sustainable. In addition, when new trees are planted to replace ones that are lost, carbon footprints are offset. Not to mention; planting new trees reduces the rate of land erosion by protecting the soil from the impact of rain; they offer energy-saving shade that reduces global warming and they create habitats for thousands of different species. Fantastic considering that a recent governmental report stated that the UK will miss almost all of its 2020 nature targets because, as a nation, we're continuing to fail to protect our threatened species, to end the degradation of land, to reduce agricultural pollution and to increase funding for green schemes[3].

Nowadays, most brown paper bags are made using a mixture of both raw and recycled materials, not just pure virgin substances. This is good for the Earth because it means that manufacturers don't need to chop down as many trees to make their brown Kraft paper bags (which also prevents pollution as the need to collect new raw materials is reduced), and they don't need as much energy to make them; therefore reducing the amount of greenhouse gases their factories are emitting. In the same vein, by using a combination of recycled and virgin materials, not as much waste is created.

Paper bags are made from organic materials which, when disposed of in optimal conditions, decomposes at much faster rates than plastic. In compost piles, paper bags will degrade in about 16 weeks; in landfills between 2 and 6 compared to ordinary plastic bags which can take between 10 and 1,000 years to degrade. Not only are brown paper bags able to decompose more quickly, when they do break down they don't leak any toxic chemicals back into our air, soil or waterways (unlike plastic) and if given the right environmental conditions the decomposing waste does not release methane gas into the atmosphere either.

Paper carrier bags are more widely recyclable than plastic bags are which is beneficial for our planet because by recycling paper bags we help save energy; water and landfill space. Not to mention, recycling - of any product - reduces the amount of greenhouse gas emissions we make and the recycled fibers are a sustainable, cost-saving resource.

Each tonne (2,000 lbs) of recycled paper can save 17 trees; 380 gallons of oil, three cubic yards of landfill space, 4,000 kilowatts of energy and 7,000 gallons of water. This represents a 64 per cent saving on energy; a 58 per cent saving on water and 60 pounds less of air pollution[4]

A study by the Environment Agency found that paper bags need to be reused at least three times in order to have a lower global warming potential than a conventional single-use plastic bag. Plastic 'Bags for Life' need to be reused at least four times to be considered as environmentally-friendly[5].

So, because most paper bags are crafted using a combination of recycled and raw materials (available from sustainable sources); because they reduce the amounts of greenhouse gas emissions and waste we make, because they decompose in a natural way and because they're more widely recycled than plastics, paper bags are good for the environment.

However, because there are always two sides to a story, here's why paper bags aren't good for our planet.

Paper Bags: Why They're Bad for the Planet

Please Note It's hard to come by any recent research about the paper vs. plastic bag debate that hasn't been funded by the plastics industry. It's also proven quite difficult to find the original sources to many of the statements; facts and figures made below. However, in 2018, Denmark's Ministry of Environment and Food did conduct a life-cycle assessment of grocery carrier bags and agreed with many of these decade old studies that plastic carrier bags have the least environmental impact[6].

According to the 2011 Environmental Impact of Plastic, Paper and Cloth Bags Report written by the Northern Ireland Assembly, it takes more than four times as much energy to manufacture a paper bag than it does to manufacture a plastic one[7]. If this was ever the case - and if it's still true today - then this means that crafting paper bags requires more fuel to generate the electricity to power their manufacturing processes; which in turn means these processes produce more greenhouse gases and air pollution than the manufacture of plastic bags.

According to unsubstantiated claims from unknown sources that back this statement up, creating brown paper carrier bags generates 70 per cent more air pollution, 80 per cent more greenhouse gases and 50 times more water pollutants than the creation of plastic bags. That being said, back in 2006, the UK Environment Agency did find - for the manufacturing processes and technologies available at the time - that plastic bags did require the least amount of water and energy to make compared to paper bags[8].

Despite this, it's important to note that neither of these reports go into detail about where the electricity used to manufacture either product is coming from. If manufacturers receive their power from renewable resources (like solar, geothermal or wind) then they won't contribute to climate change or local air pollution since no fuels are combusted[9].

The majority of brown paper bags are made from Kraft paper which is made by heating wood chips to a high degree and then chemically converting that wood into wood pulp before being screened, washed and pressed. These chemicals, unsupported claims say, contribute more to air and water pollution than the chemicals in plastic bags do.

Because paper bags weigh more than plastic carriers, the Environmental Literacy Council estimates that to ship the same number of bags it would only take one lorry to transport the plastic carriers but seven to transport the paper ones. Their appraisal therefore implies that paper bags are bad for the environment because they increase the amount of trucks needed to be on the road which in turn increases our carbon footprints and the amount of greenhouse gases we produce[10]. However, this doesn't take into account the use of biofuels; alternative fuels or companies planting trees to offset the carbon footprints they cause.

Paper carrier bags are not as strong or stable as plastic ones; they're more likely to split or tear, especially if they get wet, meaning that paper bags are worse for the planet because people will go through more of them than plastic ones; leading to more paper waste. According to the UK Environment Agency, "it is unlikely the paper bag can [ever] be regularly reused...due to its low durability".

So, because paper bags are said to create more pollution; more greenhouse gases and require more water and energy to manufacture, they're not as good-for-the-planet as plastic bags are. By taking into account factors like the impact of manufacturing on climate change; ozone depletion, water use, air pollution, and human toxicity, it appears as if the plastic shopping bag wins over paper.

Or does it?

Which Will You Choose; Paper or Plastic?

As seen from the list of pros and cons, there are good points to brown paper bags and there are bad points to them, although it's this writer's opinion that the cons need to be taken with a pinch of salt as the only available studies into paper bags vs. plastic bags are outdated; mostly funded by the plastics industry (and therefore bias), and since the decade or so that these reports first came out, packaging manufacturing and waste management processes and technologies have evolved and improved. For example, nowadays, Kraft paper pulp is made from a combination of virgin and recycled fibers of maritime pine (not just virgin material) and isn't bleached to ensure minimum chemical processing. Neither do any of these reports mention the impact that plastic waste has - and is already having - on the health of our oceans. For example, did you know that plastic bags kill 100,000 marine animals each year and that for every square mile of ocean there can be found 46,000 pieces of plastic[11]?

It's also important to take into account that when anyone discusses replacing single-use plastics with paper, it is no-one's intention to turn paper into a single-use product too; that would just be counterproductive. By improving the thicknesses and designs of paper bags and hopefully having learned from our past mistakes surrounding fishing sustainability, it is this writer's opinion that we won't be causing mass deforestation any time soon by replacing single-use plastic bags (or even reusable 'bags for life') with single-use paper bags.

Along the same lines of re-usability and durability, and to counter the argument that paper bags aren't as long-lasting or a strong as plastic ones, it's important to remember - as it's the same with plastic carriers - that you can purchase them in a variety of thicknesses and designs. Therefore, there'll be paper bags out there that are in fact stronger than you think; much more so than you could imagine. You can even purchase paper bags with excellent wet-strength properties so that they keep their strength even if they're out in the rain. Not forgetting that paper bags can be re-used at home in a variety of manners more than the three times suggested by the UK Environment Agency to make them more environmentally-friendly.

Brown Paper Bags

So, now, armed with a better understanding of the paper vs. plastic debate, whether you're out shopping and trying to choose between paper and plastic or you're a business trying to decide whether to invest in paper bags or plastic carriers, you'll be able to make a more informed decision; choosing the type of bags you think are the best to use and buy. You might even decide not to invest in either as according to Clean Water Action, when faced with the question of "do you want paper or plastic?", the answer should always be neither; "the best environmentally friendly solution is to avoid [paper and plastic] altogether in favor of reusable [items]"[12] such as wooden baskets and organic net bags.

But, if you would prefer to invest in paper bags, why not check out our ever-expanding range in our shop? All our paper counter bags and paper bags with handles are reliably strong, dependably durable, chemical-free, made from a combination of recycled and virgin materials sourced from FSC-accredited, sustainable sites and are fully compostable. Alternatively, if wooden baskets; wooden crates and organic net bags sound more like the eco-friendly packaging solution you need, why not get in touch with your requirements and one of our friendly, knowledgeable and passionate team members will see what we can source for you.

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