Paper vs. Plastic: Which Is Better for the Environment?

(Image credit: From Left to Right: Goncharov_Artem/Shutterstock; ARIMAG/Shutterstock)

How many times have you been asked “paper or plastic” at the grocery store and wondered which was actually better for the environment? Well, it’s kind of a trick question because experts say neither is as sustainable as a reusable bag that you bring to the grocery store every time you shop (preferably one made of a natural material like cotton, rather than a synthetic one). “That is by far the best choice,” says Shelie Miller, an associate professor in the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan.

But what if you’ve forgotten your reusable bags at home and absolutely have to make a choice between paper and plastic? Unfortunately, there’s not one definitive clear-cut answer — but here’s what we know.

1. Plastic is generally a better choice in terms of the resources that it takes to produce the bags in the first place.

Paper requires more materials and the process used to create the bags is generally more resource-intensive than with plastic bags. “There have been a lot of studies on the paper versus plastic debate, and generally speaking, plastic bags do tend to have overall less resource use and water quality impact,” says Miller. “But unfortunately I wish us environmentalists could come up with super-definitive things because we always have caveats.” One worth noting here is that paper bags get bonus points if they’re made of recycled materials — and paper-bag manufacturers are working on ways to make the production process more eco-friendly.

Which brings us to our next caveat …

2. Plastic bags are much harder to recycle.

When plastic bags are sent to materials recovery facilities (MRFs), they tend to gum up the equipment, so they can’t be recycled at typical facilities. “They’re thin and flexible plastic, so they snag the recycling equipment,” says Bob Gedert, president of the National Recycling Coalition. “Plastic bags are a nuisance at any recycling MRF, and they don’t want them. So the only way to recycle a plastic bag is through a grocery-store collection program, and there’s one company in the U.S. that wants those and makes park benches and picnic tables and so forth.”

So if you live in a community with a grocery store that offers plastic bag recycling, then you can take advantage of the program — but not everyone does, unfortunately.

3. You can minimize the environmental aspect of paper and plastic bags by reusing them and recycling them.

There’s a reason “reuse” comes before “recycle” in the whole “reduce, reuse, recycle” mandate: It takes more resources to recycle anything than for you to reuse it in its current form. So the more you can reuse a bag, the better. “So much of it depends on what your functions are and what you do and how you behave,” says Miller. “If you have a paper bag and use it a lot of times and it gets recycled, then the paper might be better than the plastic, for example.”

Once you will no longer be reusing your bags — whether they’re paper or plastic — you should still make an effort to recycle them (and recycle them properly). As mentioned above, while most community recycling programs can successfully recycle paper bags, you have to take plastic bags to a grocery store that collects them for recycling.

“If you can recycle a bag a bunch of times, then you reduce the overall impact,” says Miller. “But it depends on consumers to actually recycle what they get.”

4. That said, reusable bags will always be a more sustainable choice than paper or plastic.

Because these reduce the amount of resources you’re using to transport your groceries — and have you reusing the materials that were used to create your bags — they’re the optimal choice. “My knee-jerk reaction to ‘paper or plastic’ is always reusable,” says Gedert. “I’d ideally look for an American-made cotton grocery bag, although that can be hard to find. (This bag from Turtlecreek, available on Amazon, is a good option.)

Miller agrees: “Paper and plastic have their tradeoffs, and one thing we can pretty easily say is if you reuse a reusable bag many, many times, you’re going to be coming out better overall.”

Do you bring a reusable tote to the grocery store? Where do you stand on the paper vs. plastic debate?

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