Paper Bags or Plastic Bags? (hint: neither)

Please check Further Reading at the bottom of the page for updated information on plastic recycling.

I’m old enough to remember a world before the ubiquity of plastic bags. I’d wrapped each arm around a brown paper bag full of groceries then grabbed two more as I hauled them from the car up a flight of stairs. Always gambling that one or more bags wouldn’t rip causing boxes, jars, and cans of food to tumble down the stairs.

When plastic bags came out I made it a personal challenge to carry as many bags as possible – sometimes six per hand. Even when paper bags started to get those sorry excuse for handles I favored the plastic ones for the convenience of turning six into one trip up the stairs.

Brown paper bags were stored in the crevasse between the refrigerator and the wall. I can’t think of anything we used them for other than wrapping my textbooks and covering the table when carving a pumpkin. Plastic bags were either thrown away or stored in a larger plastic bag for various reusable purposes – mostly dog poop.

I guess it was about thirty years ago when we were first presented with the choice of paper or plastic. Plastic was an easy choice. It reduced trips from the car to the kitchen and eliminated the risk of spaghetti sauce on your front lawn. The public motivation to use plastic, at the time, was the concern for our forests. Using plastic meant saving a tree. Today we plant more trees in the United States than we cut down while plastic bags are killing animals.

So, ecologically speaking, what’s better? Paper or Plastic? I ask because there’s concern about all this plastic littering our planet. Starbucks and other places are getting rid of plastic straws. Many cities, states, and some countries have even started to ban single-use plastic bags. As much as I love the convenience of carrying ten plastic bags at a time, the environmental concern over plastic means we should demand our local stores do the same.

Well, here’s the thing about paper – It’s heavy, it’s expensive, and it requires toxic chemicals to manufacture. Paper takes an incredible amount of resources to produce and transport. It ultimately contributes to significantly more air pollution than plastic. Is that an acceptable compromise to the fossil fuel derived plastic bags littering our neighborhoods and oceans?

If you look over the numbers comparing the environmental impact of paper versus plastic you’re going to get mixed results. In some cases, the data relies on you and I recycling correctly. Wet or oily paper cannot be recycled. Plastic bags have to be recycled separately from other plastics because they wreak havoc on the processing machines. Paper and plastic essentially degrade at the same rate in a landfill but paper takes up four times as much space. Frankly, they both suck.

Enter the reusable canvas bag.

If paper and plastic bags are environmental disasters, the obvious solution is to bring your own reusable bag.

I used to think people who brought their own bags to the grocery store were ridiculous. No way would I become one of ‘those people’ dragging their floral decorated grandma bags from the house, to the car, into the store, then walking around with them. Nothing could convince me to sacrifice the convenience of walking in empty handed and finding all the bags I needed where and when I needed them.

The change of heart began when my little kitchen started to fill up with garbage bags overflowing with plastic bags and a three-foot stack of paper bags. For what reason was I holding on to them? Why didn’t I just throw the stuff in the trash? Does anyone need their textbook wrapped?

I started looking online for canvas bags without flowers, kittens, or grocery store logos. I found some that could pass for something a lumberjack would use to his carry tools. With two nondescript canvas bags tightly rolled up and shoved under my armpit, I walked into the grocery store trying to hide my embarrassment. I began to thoroughly enjoy this ritual after repeating it a few times. Bringing your own bag is sort of empowering.

This is my bag. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

I found a few more bags. Some are large and loose; great for veggies, flowers, and baguettes. Some are short and sturdy; for packaged goods, meats, and carrying tools. I now have dozens of bags for different purposes. My favorites are the big blue Ikea bags and some from a family friend who sells DuckSacks on Etsy. All my bags are really strong and allow me to carry far more than I ever could with either paper or plastic bags.

I’ve even stopped using plastic produce bags to irrationally collate my fruits and vegetables. Come on people. Do we really need to put four apples in a bag to keep them separate from another bag of four oranges? Free your produce! They’ll be fine and you’ll feel better about not throwing away another useless bag.

Sometimes I’m in the car or on the El and I remember I need to pick something up from the store. My philosophy about bags has changed so much that I have to seriously consider if it’s worth the trip without my own bags. I’m glad bags are still conveniently available at the stores but that doesn’t save me from the embarrassment of walking in without my own.

Just this morning I learned that Philly has been sending half it’s recyclables to an incinerator in Chester County. This was due to increased costs and China refusing to take American recyclables. I was equally surprised to read we’ve been sending all our crap over to China. Great – even recycling has a significant carbon footprint. Thankfully, it looks like Waste Management is going to start processing our clean recyclables at the end of the month.

The Paper or Plastic question is settled and the answer is neither.

If you’re still using plastic bags, please bring them back to the grocery store so they can be recycled properly. When discarding clean paper products, put them in a recycling container with a lid so they don’t get wet. Please check with your local municipality regarding their rules on recycling. They may not be able to process what you’re discarding. Most importantly, go buy some reusable canvas bags!

Further Reading

More Than Meets The Eye: Paper or Plastic?
Paper Versus Plastic
The Truth About Paper Bags
Three Changes to How Philadelphia Recycles and Handles Its Waste
Philly to stop incinerating recyclables by the end of the month
The New Recycling Challenges for Philly
State Lawmakers In Philadelphia Introduce Bill To Curb Use Of Plastic Bags
Philadelphia passes ban on single-use plastic bags (12/12/2019)
You Only Think You’re Recycling These Plastics (2/18/2020)
Reusable grocery bags aren’t as environmentally friendly as you might think (10/28/2020)

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  1. That was awesome!

  2. Rita Osvai

    Thanks for the info about bags. I needed to hear that! Great writing ?
    Rita Scalzo. Osvai

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