You’re at the grocery store and you get asked, “paper or plastic?” Most people have a standby option they believe is better, whether that’s thinking paper is more recyclable or plastic can be reused for garbage bags. But, is one actually better than the other? To settle this debate, I debunked two myths about the plastic vs. paper debate to help you decide, once and for all, which way to go.
MYTH: Paper is better than plastic
Over time, paper bags have garnered the reputation of being the better alternative when asked the perennial question “paper or plastic?” However, the reality is that paper bags really aren’t much better. While paper bags are easier to recycle and have about 50% more capacity than a plastic bag, the energy it takes to make a paper bag is more than the energy required for plastic bag. Just making the paper alone consumes huge amounts of energy (including fossil fuel based energy) before it even gets to the stage of becoming an actual bag, outweighing some of the benefits of recycling.
MYTH: Plastic bags aren’t recyclable
Luckily this myth is false! There is nothing in plastic bags that prevents them from being recycled. However, before you get too excited, recycling plastic bags is an arduous process that requires re-melting and re-casting the bags. This process uses less energy than making new bags, but the quality of the plastic is “downcycled,” meaning the plastic is not as viable and is therefore rarely made into new bags. Just because the bags do not turn into new bags does not make them entirely useless, as they can be turned into raw materials for other plastic-based products, but recycling plastic bags is not a perfect fix.
Ultimately, experts almost unanimously agree that reusable canvas bags are the way to go over plastic or paper! Beyond the obvious that they can be used again and again, reusable bags are stronger, sturdier, and carry more than paper or plastic, meaning less trips to get all the groceries in from the car. Reusable bags are not the solution to all plastic waste, but using them can be a small step in reducing the nearly 380 billion plastic bags we use every year in this country.
For more information on the “plastic versus paper” debate, check out:
"Paper of Plastic? A Look at the Facts, Myths and Numbers of Shopping Bags" by Collin Dunn, Huffington Post, July 16, 2008