Paper or Plastic, Which Way to Go?

Posted by Vivian McNeil on

As anyone would agree, we live in a throwaway society. The citizens of the United States, and specifically New York, are rapidly paced individuals looking for the fastest and most efficient way to shop. Does it make a difference to a New Yorker if the bag his neighborhood grocer gives him is paper or plastic? I remember going to Waldbaum’s thirty years ago and taking home my groceries in paper bags. According to the paper vs plastic debate, what’s the difference? I disposed of them anyway. Who has room to pile up bags whether they be paper or plastic? 

Just a few years ago, at the checkout counter at Trader Joe’s the automatic question from the nice cashier was paper or plastic? It was my choice. Everyone likes a choice. No one wants state laws pushed on them involuntarily. Presently, Trader Joe’s offers paper bags only, and encourages their loyal customers to bring in their reused paper bags. They also give an option of very nicely decorated bags made of different types of biodegradable materials at quite reasonable prices for purchase. These sachets are quite tempting to buy due to the nicely decorated and reasonably priced selection. In 2018, Trader Joe’s officially eliminated Styrofoam packaging of their fresh produce (such as potatoes, apples and pears), and meats in favor of bio-based compostable packaging like PET1 trays which are highly recyclable. 

During the past year, 2019, Trader Joe's has reduced the number of items sold in plastic packaging. In their present plans, are wrapping their famous floral arrangements and greeting cards with a renewable and compostable material. 

Starting March 1, 2020. New York State will have mandatory laws to discourage the use of single-use plastic bags. Shoppers will be allowed to bring any type of bag, including plastic to the store. If you do not bring a bag, you will have to pay for your plastic bags for your groceries and other items under the new law. If you go to the pharmacy, you will still be entitled to a free bag for your prescription drugs. According to the backers of this new law, plastic bags can be seen stuck in trees and floating in waterways which harm wildlife which they want to protect. 

Let’s examine the facts and opinions of plastic bags versus paper supermarket bags. 

The first plastic bag ban took place in 1990, when the vacation haven for the rich and famous, Nantucket Island in Massachusetts, banned retail plastic bags. Presently, at least three states have bans on plastic bags, including California, Hawaii and now, New York. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, Californians pay eleven dollars per capita each year to keep plastic bags from reaching their oceans and causing marine pollution. To protect California waters from plastic waste cost approximately $428 million dollars annually. Seven million tons of trash enter our oceans every year. According to the Earth Policy institute, about 41% of the trash in the oceans collected, is plastic. No one would disagree that this is a major problem, however, banning plastic bags in favor of paper is not the ideal solution according to many experts. 

Are paper bags safe for the environment and the economy?

For each tractor trailer used to transport plastic bags, you would need seven times as many to haul the same number of paper bags. To recycle these same paper bags, it would take 90% more energy and resources to manufacture and recycle paper bags compared to their plastic counterparts. 

Using reusable canvas bags is always advisable instead of having to pay a fee for plastic or opt for free paper bags. However, when it comes to using disposable paper bags, are they better for the environment? Paper can do a lot of damage to our planet as well. When you look or touch paper grocery bags, they seem somewhat friendlier to the environment. They don't smell or have that glossy petroleum look. They fold flat and are not messy in storing like plastic bags. 


The landfill is not the ideal conditions for paper to break down properly. If there is not enough light, oxygen and just plain air, in all probability paper will decompose in equal time to plastic. While paper should break down faster than plastic it does not happen in typical landfill environments. 


Compared to plastic, it takes four times the amount of energy to manufacture a paper bag. Any child would know that cutting down and using the trees that the paper bags come from, kills one of the greatest natural resources we have. 

Paper Bags

  • Create 70 times more air pollutants than plastic
  • Create 50 times more water pollutants than plastic
  • Consume 91% less energy to be recycled than does a paper bag
  • Shipping paper bags in trucks uses much more fuel per bag than its plastic counterpart.
  • Practically speaking how do you put a quart or half gallon of milk in a paper bag efficiently?
  • We all realize that if there is even a drop of leakage, the bottom of the bag will rip. The only way that a paper bag will work for a milk container is to double it. It’s rare to be able to use it again except for dry groceries. So even though it's ”recyclable” the food or oil soaks into its fibers and then it is not “recyclable”. 

Studies of the environmental impact of various types of one-use disposable bags have come to differing conclusions. Plastic industry groups, such as, American Progressive Bag Alliance, fund some of these studies so in all probability, they could be biased. Even the studies that have pristine intentions must depend on certain preconceived assertions. Let’s say, a consumer like my father, reuses their plastic grocery bag as a garbage bag in the bathroom, does that reduce the bag’s footprint by eliminating the need for another new small plastic garbage bag? 

Did you know that paper bags have a higher carbon footprint than plastic bags? 

In 2007, an Australian state government agency, published a research paper finding that paper bags have a higher carbon footprint than plastic bags. (Carbon footprint is the amount of carbon dioxide and other carbon compounds emitted due to the consumption of fossil fuels by a person, group, etc.) This is because more energy is needed to produce and transport paper bags. According to David Tyler, a professor of chemistry at the University of Oregon, carbon footprints are complex, but can be understood since paper bags are much thicker than plastic bags and carbon footprints are proportional to the size of an object. This study concluded that the best option would be neither single use paper nor plastic bags but rather a reusable bag made from recycled plastic. A major shift to more sustainable bags would cause environmental gains. It would reduce energy and water use, greenhouse gasses, and decrease garbage. 

There is a law under consideration in Massachusetts, that would require single use paper bags to contain at least 40% recycled fiber. 

Science and technology are catching up on the need to retrieve plastic waste. Once upon a time, it was daunting if not impossible to recover plastic waste. Now there is a new system called, The Trash Wheel, stationed in Maryland’s, Baltimore Harbor. This type of mechanical system can be effective in retrieving large pieces of plastic such as food containers, foam cups and plastic bags from the waters around cities. This must be done quickly and efficiently, because once the plastics break down into tinier pieces, and drift into the open ocean, they will not be able to be picked up. 

It takes only common sense to realize that the way to go is reusable bags. Bags such as the ones sold at Trader Joe’s are economical and go for all types of uses whether supermarket shopping, clothing shopping or overnight stays at friends. A washable bag would be great because no matter what spills, it can always be easily laundered. 

There is a certain type of customer who frequents Trader Joe’s. Upon entering the store, you immediately feel as if you have been transferred out of town, even if you are still in New York. The lines can be long, but no one seems to mind. Each cashier and worker are so pleasant and personable, you want to please them by being nice back. This is the environment where people can change from plastic to paper and even to reusable bags without being forced. 

It will take time, but a positive approach is always the way to go. One suggestion was to give low income families free reusable bags to get people into the habit of bringing the bags to the supermarket. It still will take time for the citizens of this state to get used to bringing their reusable bags to the store. 

According to the paper vs plastic debate, there is no bag that will be free of negative environmental concern, whether it is causing ocean pollution, climate change or other consequences. We also must look at what we put in the grocery bag that can also have an impact on the environment, but that’s for another time.

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