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What kinds of bags should you use? Examining the Pros and Cons of Paper, Plastic and Reusable Shopping Bags

When the grocer asks you “paper or plastic?” do you find yourself having a crisis of conscience? This question is no longer as simple as it used to be. With roughly 335 plastic shopping bags used per person per year in the US, many of us are constantly wondering which kind of bags we should be using. This applies to consumers as well as businesses that are looking into custom shopping bags for their branding and marketing strategies.

bag1Many consumers are becoming more conscientious about their carbon footprint and impact upon the environment. With this raised awareness, people are searching more and more for the most environmentally safe way to accomplish simple tasks like going to the grocery store. Companies are being urged to disclose any information regarding their waste generation and great deals of harmful practices are being exposed and punished. So what is the key to getting our groceries home in one piece while also saving our planet? As it turns out, this rise in global environmental awareness may be more helpful than digging for just the right bag.

The simple truth is that proper use, reuse and disposal of our bags makes as much, if not more, of an impact on environmental health than the creation of the bags. In fact, by diverting 75% of the nation’s waste toward better recycling practices, emissions could be cut by 276 million metric tons by 2030. This is roughly equivalent to taking 50 million cars off the roadways.

By reusing our plastic shopping bags, or any shopping bag for that matter, and observing smart waste habits, such as upcycling, we make a bigger impact than that of the creation of the bag itself, regardless of type.

Below, we have made some comparisons between paper, cotton and plastic shopping bags. Pros and cons of each are listed out with some important facts and summaries about each type of bag. Hopefully this list will assist you in making the best decision for your wallet and the environment.

Paper Shopping Bags

bag2These are the paper grocery bags you see at most grocery stores as an alternative to plastic. The thought behind these bags is that by using a more renewable resource that is not oil, paper bags are stronger and safer than their plastic counterpart. The truth is that these bags are not as clean of a solution as they initially appear.

Pros

  • Made from trees, a more easily renewable resource than oil, paper bags can be more easily recycled.
  • Bags are often larger, allowing for more items to be carried per bag.

Cons

  • The creation of paper bags produces 70 percent more pollution than an equal number of plastic shopping bags.
  • Due to the dyes and paints used on the bags, a great many of these bags are rendered un-recyclable, meaning more waste generated than plastic bags.
  • Dyes and paints used in these bags are often toxic.
  • It takes more energy to make a single paper bag than a plastic bag. While the bag itself may contain less oil, it takes more oil (in the form of energy production) to make it.
  • Must be reused at least 3 times to be more economical than a plastic bag.

Reusable Shopping Bags 

Made from either polyester or (more often) cotton, these fabric bags are made to stand the test of time and are designed to be reused indefinitely.

Pros

  • Once made, a single shopping bag may be reused dozens of times without worry about wearing out, tearing or ripping.
  • These bags are often portable and collapsible, allowing them to be taken with you almost anywhere
  • They can be larger than plastic shopping bags, meaning you need fewer to carry more items.

Cons

  • The creation of one bag creates a much larger carbon footprint than plastic bags.
  • Cotton requires a great deal of space, water, energy, fertilizer and pesticides to grow.
  • You must reuse a cotton bag 131 times to ensure less environmental impact than a traditional plastic bag.

Plastic Shopping Bags

Although there is a large amount of criticism for the traditional “thank you” bag, researchers are finding out more and more that these bags are created in the least environmentally-impactful fashion when compared to other bag types. As with any bag, proper disposal and reuse are key to minimizing the carbon footprint of these bags.

Pros

  • Higher reuse rate than any other kind of shopping bag. Since a plastic bag can have many uses (cat litter bins, packaging insulation and even some arts and crafts projects), many consumers reuse their bags over and over again.
  • The cheapest and lowest energy amount needed per bag constructed.
  • Lowest carbon footprint per bag when compared to its competitors.
  • An ideal balance between business cost and consumer value, plastic bags help both sides of the economic coin.

Cons

  • Due to poor waste management, 10% of the plastic used worldwide annually ends up in our oceans, 70% of which sinks below the surface.
  • Plastic in the ocean may be consumed by animals in that habitat, causing internal harm if the bags are not properly disposed of.

What creative uses have you found for upcycling your grocery bags? What kinds of bags do you prefer to use? Join the conversation by sending us an email or posting and commenting below. The debate is just getting underway and we want your input.

In summary, while each bag has its benefits, most bag options are still not as low-impact environmentally as plastic shopping bags. A majority of the concern about plastic bags comes down to the individual usage. If consumers are not responsible with their waste – paper, plastic or otherwise – the greatest harm occurs from any of these products. It is then most important for the end consumer to practice proper waste disposal and reuse habits to ensure that carbon footprint and irresponsible waste is kept to a minimum.

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