Both paper and plastic bags are taxing on the environment, so the best choice would be to use cloth bags; but there will be times you are caught without your cloth bag. In 2005 EPA research shows that approximately 5.2% of plastic bags are recycled, and the other 94.8% of those bags will take 500-1000 years to decompose. Plastic grocery bags emit fewer greenhouse gases and less solid waste than paper bags. If plastic were to be replaced by other materials, trash weight would increase by 150%, packaging would weigh 300% more and energy consumed by the industry would increase by 100%
According to the American Forest & Paper Association, 2007 marked an all-time high of 56% for the recycling of paper consumed in the U.S.A. Unfortunately, the production of a paper bag consumes 1 gallon of water equating to 50 times that of plastic bags. But, a paper bag will naturally decompose into organic materials within our lifetime.
This really is a tough decision to make, but I believe if only paper bags were offered the environment would be better off mostly due to the fact that trees are a renewable resource and can easily decompose without harming the environment.
This is truly a complicated answer because you have to consider not only the impact of such items after they are thrown away, but the resources and energy that goes into creating them and the ease of recycling them. If you look at the numbers that go into producing each type of bag, it appears that plastic bags are more eco-friendly. Per National Geographic: “Compared to paper grocery bags, plastic grocery bags consume 40 percent less energy, generate 80 percent less solid waste, produce 70 percent fewer atmospheric emissions, and release up to 94 percent fewer waterborne wastes, according to the federation.”
But according to some statistics, only .6% of plastic bags are recycled, and 100 billion polyethylene plastic bags are thrown away each year. Many of them end of floating away on the breeze and getting stuck in the ocean. Since they do not degrade completely, they poison sea creatures by ending up in the food chain.
When it comes to paper bags, they are of course derived from trees, which if forested sustainably are not a limited resource as the petrochemicals that go into plastic bags are. But keep in mind they tend to be more sturdy in some cases, and they don’t choke up our natural ecosystems when they are tossed out.
The real answer is to minimize your use of all types of disposable bags, and to try to reuse them as much as possible.
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