Recently, what type of bag you use at the grocery store has become a subject of debate. Most people have a negative view of plastic bags for a number of reasons. Some advocate returning to the paper bag as an alternative – but not everyone. While a complete ban on both plastic and paper is considered to be the most “progressive” view, in reality, it isn’t modern at all – it is a return to the past. We know why plastic wasn’t a great idea but here are some of the reasons why reusable bags are better than paper.
Before 1852, there were no single-use bags of any type. When going to the store, everyone carried their own bag. Some people had “nicer” bags than others, but any bag that would hold groceries and other items – was a good bag. An American teacher changed all that with her invention which enabled mass-production of paper bags. Over the next 50 years, the paper bag went through several changes. Flat-bottomed bags were introduced in 1871, and an addition of pleated folds made the bag into the “self-opening sac” which is more or less what we had until the mid-1990s when the plastic bag pushed paper all the way out of the store. Plastic was said to save trees - and it was cheaper.
What’s wrong with paper
The exclusive use of plastic bags has caused a number of problems - from manufacturing with petroleum to the fact that they do not degrade. Certain stores, cities and other localities began enacting plastic bag bans but paper disappeared for a reason – and that reason hasn’t changed. It costs more for the retailer but the environmental impact is much higher than a few trees.
Paper is made of plant cellulose. Brown paper bags are made of the cheapest type – wood. Some bags are “made from recycled material” but may use as little as 10% recycled waste. Even the 100% recycled paper bag is mostly made from “pre-consumer” waste discarded at the factory. They also take more energy to produce – and cost more to buy. No, the recycled paper bag is not made from someone’s trash and since recycling requires “clean” paper, yours becomes trash.
To produce paper, trees are harvested, chopped, ground and “cooked” into a paper stew, which is mashed, squeezed and rolled into sheets and then cut, formed, glued and folded into a bag. It is a long process which consumes a lot of wood – hundreds of millions of trees every year. A large grocery store can use 10,000 or more bags every day which is the equivalent of about 8 large trees. Over the course of a year, 30 or more acres of trees may be cleared for a single, large grocery store.
While many communities are drought-stricken, paper manufacturing requires massive amounts of water to be used in manufacturing. It also produces toxic wastewater contaminated with chlorinated chemicals, acids, base salts, colorants, and solvents – some of which may cause cancer and may make decontamination impossible. To produce a single ton of paper, the industry uses 700 gallons of water – more than any other industry. Over the course of a year, 255,000 gallons of water will be used for one, large grocery store.
Paper is bulky and heavy. In addition to fuel used in harvesting, chopping and grinding and energy consumed in manufacturing, massive amounts of fuel are consumed to transport trees to the paper mill, paper to the bag manufacturing plant, and finished bags to the retail outlet. In addition, though the U.S. and Canada make most of our paper, plenty is made outside of the U.S., including most of the recycled paper. Wood and even trash are exported, only to be imported as finished product and, since paper is bulky, a lot of cargo space is needed.
Though America is “going green,” the reality is that about a third of our garbage is paper and nearly 100 million tons are thrown out every year. At least half, including nearly all of our paper bags, ends up in the landfill. The largest user of recycled materials has been China which, until recently, purchased our trash - bundles of plastic, fiber and paper to make into new goods. After the Beijing Olympics showed the world how polluted China has become, the government cracked down on certain industries, dramatically reducing the import of “trash.” Paper already accounts for about 90 million cubic yards of landfill space and more may be headed there.
Why are Reusable Bags Better than Paper?
Reusable bags put the plastic vs. paper controversy to rest by saying “neither.” By eliminating paper, reusable bags save us in resources of wood, water and energy, they are constructed of “renewable” or recycled material, they prevent trash from going into the landfill, and they help reduce pollution from manufacturing and fuel use.
Not only can they be used over and over, they are made in every combination possible. From small to large, heavy to light, ordinary to fancy. Even the “cheapest” of them is more reliable and can carry much heavier, bulkier and oddly shaped products.