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The Truth About Paper Bags

These days, when you hear the question, “Paper or plastic?” the answer is an almost instinctive “Paper!” We all know that plastic is terrible for the environment, and that plastic bags in particular are clogging up our oceans, choking our wildlife and generally wreaking havoc on the world.

Because of this, and because the paper bag industry has positioned itself as the solution for decades now, we rarely stop to ask a critical question: Is paper actually that much better?

The truth is, no, it’s not. Paper does a lot of damage to the Earth as well, and every time we unthinkingly grab a few bags at the checkout stand, we contribute to that damage. It’s time to learn the truth about paper bags, so we can start making better choices today.

Because the answer to “Paper or plastic?” should actually be “Neither … I brought my own.”

Not That Much Better Than Plastic

Paper bags just seem friendlier to the environment, right? They don’t have that slick petroleum look like plastic bags do; they’re a cheerful kraft color; they fold up neatly to stack in your cupboard for next time (assuming they didn’t get destroyed this time).

But research, such as this report, makes clear that plastic really doesn’t have much on plastic. To wit:

  • It doesn’t break down any faster than plastic in landfills. That’s because, while paper breaks down much faster under ideal conditions, landfills are not ideal conditions. The lack of light, air and oxygen means pretty much nothing decomposes, so paper and plastic are destined to spend equal amounts of time there.
  • Paper bags are bigger than plastic, which means they take up more space in landfills. They’re recycled at a higher rate, which mitigates that fact, but that still means they still have a greater per-bag impact on landfills.
  • It takes four times as much energy to manufacture a paper bag, as compared to plastic, and the raw materials have to come from trees, a natural resource that is otherwise carbon-fixing. Making paper bags not only adds waste to the world, it kills one of our greatest tools for fighting pollution.
  • Paper bags generate 70 more air pollutants than plastic.
  • They generate 50 times more water pollutants than plastic.
  • It takes 91 percent less energy to recycle a plastic bag than it does a paper bag.
  • Paper bags are very thick, so shipping them costs more fuel per bag.

This report is admittedly biased toward plastic (and reusable bags), but if this is starting to sound like a vote for plastic bags, think again. Plastic leaches chemicals into our oceans and waterways, breaks into small pieces and accumulates in the stomachs of baby birds, strangles fish and collects into great seafaring clumps that become islands and continent-sized garbage patches. The point isn’t that plastic is good; it’s that our unwavering assumption that paper’s okay is wrong.

Here are a few more reasons not to trust that paper bag’s cheerful, eco-friendly-looking façade.

Even More Disposable?

While plastic is certainly no slice of cherry pie, it has one thing going for it that paper does not: relative strength. Paper falls apart really easily. All you need to do is put one jug of milk in a paper bag and experience The Great Bottom Falling Out Phenomenon to know that paper bags aren’t a cure-all.

In some ways, this makes paper more disposable than plastic. And while plastic can be washed if it gets yucky, paper is done for as soon as food or oil soak into its fibers. Once that happens, you can’t even recycle it. Considering the fact that “It’s recyclable!” is often cited as the main argument in favor of paper, that’s pretty bad news.

If you must choose paper, at least try to keep wet items out of it and don’t overfill it. That way it won’t tear, and hopefully you can use it again. Even when you can, though, paper only stands up to a use or three. Reusable grocery bags, on the other hand, keep trucking long afterward, good for hundreds or even thousands of uses.

A Time-Intensive Recycling Process

One thing paper bags are consistently lauded for is the higher rate at which they’re recycled. Because most municipalities accept paper bags curbside, it’s easy to forget about paper bags as soon as they’re hauled away by the recycling truck. But paper does not leave your curb and head straight to the store as shiny new paper. Far from it.

Check out this video for a comprehensive look at the steps a paper bag undergoes before it can be reused.

Allow us to summarize: Paper is first collected, sorted by machine and by hand, sorted some more to pick out all non-paper items, washed, turned to sludge, purified, poured, flattened, dried, colored or bleached, cut, packaged and sent out into the world. Each step of the way involves huge machines and intensive energy use, which rely on fossil fuels. Even if the results are good – we’ve kept a paper bag out of landfill – we have nevertheless added a huge number of chemicals to the world’s air and water.

If you’ve been relying heavily on the psychological comfort provided by paper bag recycling, think again. It’s time to stop assuming paper bags are “fine” and opt for a better option.

The Beautifully Branded Better Option

Obviously, reusable bags are better than paper bags. Yes, you can make the argument that any bag relies on manufacturing processes that use world resources and add chemicals and waste to the environment. No one’s arguing that. This is true when anyone makes anything, though, so we can’t very well allow ourselves to be crippled by that fact. Plus, people are always going to need bags in which to bring home their groceries, pack for trips or carry charitable donations to the nearest drop-off center.

The question shouldn’t be whether or not we use bags, because that’s silly. Rather, the question should be: “If we’re going to use the world’s resources, what’s the absolute best product we can make with those resources?”

When it comes to bags, the answer is obvious: Custom imprinted reusable bags are the ticket. Whether that means wine and beer bags, insulated bags or canvas totes, our carrying devices are good for hundreds of uses. Instead of trashing or recycling bag after bag on the weekly grind of bringing home the groceries, patrons can now tuck everything into bags that they know can be refolded, washed, and used again and again.

Wouldn’t you like to be the one that brings such convenience to your clients and customers? When you work with Reuse This Bag, you can. We offer a huge range of options when it comes to type, color, logo design and more. We’ll help you customize your bag completely, so it doesn’t look like anyone else’s, then ship your new bags right to your front door. Whether you choose to give them away at the holidays or when customers buy product, or keep them for sale at your register, you’re making a wonderful contribution to the world.

Ready to get started? Please get in touch today.

Douglas Lober

Author: Douglas Lober

Douglas Lober grew up in Southern California and is an environmentalist at heart. He donates his time and finances to helping children better understand how they can become fine stewards of the Earth. He is he co-Founder and Chief Sales Professional at Reusethisbag.com with over 15 years experience as an overseas importer and exporter of fine eco-friendly promotional items.

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