Paper or Plastic? A true cost analysis

Plastic grocery bags have been banned or taxed to discourage their use in other countries, and recently San Francisco approved similar measures. While reusable bags are touted as an obvious alternative to disposable bags, paper bags are also seeing a resurgence, and are the standard bags at upscale grocers like Trader Joe’s. Paper bags are often assumed to be more environmentally friendly, which begs the question: what is the true cost of both bag varieties?

Numerous reports have been published on this topic, with the Washington Post and Environmental Literacy Council providing particularly good comparisons. On most counts, plastic bags come out ahead, even after comparing the true cost of two plastic bags against one paper bag (to make up for differences in bag size). Plastic bags require 50% less energy to produce and cause significantly less pollution during manufacturing. Paper bags are recycled more often, but over 85% of paper and 97% of plastic bags end up in landfills, where neither biodegrades, and where plastic bags take 90% less space. Plastic bags are criticized for endangering certain marine animals, and because they often end up as litter since are easily blown about.

Another good measure of cost is the price of the two items, since neither is heavily subsidized, and since the price that stores pay for bags represents the direct cost involved in production. Plastic bags cost 50% less than paper bags in the US (2 cents for two plastic bags versus 3-4 cents for one paper bag). Advantage plastic.

On most counts plastic is the clear winner for the consumer, the environment, and businesses. In fact, after weighing the costs and benefits, the Natural Resources Defense Council recommends plastic bags to everyone unable to use a reusable bag, and recommends paper bags only for those living on the coasts (to protect marine wildlife). Perhaps, as with ethanol, paper bags have just become another easy way for politicians to score points for being green, rather than taking more beneficial (and difficult) steps to protect the environment.

6 thoughts on “Paper or Plastic? A true cost analysis

  1. 2 points:
    1. Why don’t paper bags degrade in a landfill?
    2. If paper bags are recycled more often than plastic, could you kindly state that statistic?

    Comparison is apples to apples only if for every paper bag that ends up at a landfill, how many uses it has had as compared to a plastic bag.

    Else the argument is hardly convincing.

    1. As I noted in the post, 85% of paper bags and 97% of plastic bags end up in landfills, so neither is recycled at a high rate.

      See the Environmental Literacy Council link above – modern landfills are designed so that nothing biodegrades, meaning that paper bags just occupy space like anything else.

      The Washington Post link above offers an excellent rundown comparison as well.

      The final link in my post above offers the Natural Resources Defense Council’s view – that is essentially the same as what I’ve stated above.

      1. I understand that normal plastic bags are not degradable, but what about so called biodegradable plastic bags? e.g. Biobags, Biograde (Australia)…etc.? The cost is probably a lot higher than what you have said in your article of $.01 per normal plastic bag. Besides cost, shouldn’t stores use biodegradable plastic bags instead?

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