Paper or Plastic: Choose Your Environmentally-Conscious Battle

Paper of plastic? When I get to the end of the checkout line at the supermarket, I still find myself struggling with this question. I know the real environmentally friendly answer is: bring your own bag. I would never remember to carry a set of reusable canvas shopping bags with me every time I stop by the grocery store, so I’ve got to discount this option. When given the choice between paper and plastic, which is really better for the environment?

I began thinking to myself… Plastic requires petroleum to produce, and isn’t biodegradeable. Paper degrades nicely, but producing paper requires cutting down trees to produce (assuming the paper bags aren’t made from recycled paper already), but trees are more easily renewable than natural gas or oil. What if I’m extra good about bundling and recycling my plastic bags, or reusing them, does that matter? Common practice seems to suggest paper is the more ethical way to go, but I keep getting hung up on the tree thing again and I really wasn’t sure how much water the argument held.

I’m obviously not the first one to think about this, and a Google search for “paper or plastic” yields some surprising results. Believe it or not, the first result is for this page on, location of the the Film & Bag Federation, a division of The Society of the Plastics Industry, Inc.. Great! I bet they’ll give me all the facts! Their “information” basically consists of, “Look at all these other uses for your extra plastic bags!”

Going through the other results, I was surprised to find even more indecision, and a slight leaning towards plastic. A number of places listed statistics about how the energy required to produce paper bags is actually greater than that of plastic. This article from (!?) seemed to have some of the best facts and the consensus is a resounding: neither. They’re both pretty bad and there’s no clear winner. I guess that answers my question. Maybe I will start reusing bags like the good ‘ol granola Seattle-ite I pretend to be.

3 thoughts on “Paper or Plastic: Choose Your Environmentally-Conscious Battle

  1. andy

    We try to bring bags whenever we can. Aimee found some good ones at the Container Store. And our grocery store gives us 5 cents credit per bag! It saves us a tremendous amount (that we would otherwise recycle).

  2. lopolis

    Interesting article. The food processing, packaging and transportation issue might be offset a bit by good grocery habits like eating more natural foods, produced locally. That’s a whole different tangent. Also, by Ulrich’s reasoning, I guess I should ditch both my car and my bike, stop eating altogether and kill myself to minimize all impact to the planet. Somewhat impractical and counter to my interest in, um… living.


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