Plastic Grocery Bags Are Damaging the Environment

The use of paper or plastic bags has been an ongoing debate for quite sometime. Initially plastic bags were created to offset the need to use paper bags, which was thought to be terribly destructive to the environment. People believed that by using plastic bags, they would reduce the need to harvest large swaths of forest in order to sustain the demand for paper bags. Although this concept of eliminating paper bags seemed to be completely rational, an unexpected shift occurred, due to the fact that paper bags were more expensive and less durable than their paper counterparts. This has led plastic bags to capture all but 20% of the bag market for grocery and convenience store shoppers.

Because of this increased demand for plastic bags, they now litter landfills all around the world and adulterate the pristine landscapes of various regions. According to Vincent Cobb, an entrepreneur who calls Chicago, Illinois home, “The numbers are absolutely staggering”. This is in reference to the quantity of bags being consumed every year JUST in the United States, which, in 2001 was estimated at 500 billion to 1 trillion bags. From this enormous number, experts have calculated that millions end up in rivers, streams, and landfills.  

            Once plastic bags end up in the environment, it can take hundreds of year for them to break down completely. Paper bags on the other hand are very biodegradable and will disappear within a few years. As plastic bags break down also, dangerous toxins are released into the soil, which can contaminate an area severely. Some good things about plastic bags though, is the fact that they consume “40 percent less energy than paper bags, generate 80 percent less solid waste, produce 70 percent fewer atmospheric emissions, and finally release up to 94 fewer waterborne wastes.”


Below is a link to a short but interesting take on the debate of paper or plastic.

Paper manufacturing is a gigantic industry.  While the popular warring of paper vs. plastic bags continues it's probably more enlightening to take a step back and look at the big picture.  How big of a percentage do paper bags hold in the paper industry?  If you rack your brain of all the paper products you can think of I'm sure you'll hit some big ones.  For example, what about paper cups?  Huge businesses like Starbucks use millions of paper cups around the world, all of which are manufactured in a factory using paper.  Below is a link to a website that outlines the impact of paper manufacturing on our environment.  They illustrate the paper-making process and the energy, wood, water, and gas emissions of production.
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Plastic bags were originally introduced as the economic and environmentally superior choice over paper bags, due to their low production costs, smaller ecological footprint, lighter weight, easier storage, and low shipping price. Understandably, people took all of these advantages to heart. This led to plastic bags capturing 80 percent of the grocery bag market in a relatively short amount of time. The disadvantages of plastic bags would not been truly realized until much damage has already been done, and in haste to move away from that mistake, some people have mistakenly moved back to paper bags, believing them to be the superior choice for grocery bags. Unfortunately, paper bags still have their numerous disadvantages, are ultimately are no better than their plastic competitors.
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I always thought the use of paper bags would be more beneficial for the environment until I read this article about the impact of both paper and plastic on environment.
contrary to what most people think there are advantages of using plastic bags instead of paper bags.  Like paper, plastic can be recycled, and recycling process would require less energy for plastic than it is for paper.  Paper recycling requires the use of great amount of water and end result would be polluted water back into the environment.
please read this article which brings up important issues regarding use of paper and plastic.

    About EcoMerge:

    Our commitment in this Portland State University ongoing capstone project is to explore the intersects between economical and ecological systems and inform the reader, four times a year, on different major topical themes. Grocery Bags is the subject of focus on this site.


    March 2011
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