Paper vs Plastic

“Paper or plastic?” should be replaced with, “Do you have your reusable shopping bag with you?” The challenge we now face is to replace the throwaway economy with a reduce, reuse, recycle economy. Our earth can no longer tolerate the pollution, the energy use, the disruption from mining, and the deforestation that our throwaway economy requires. It is easy to forget how many throwaway products there are until we actually begin making a list. We have substituted facial tissues for handkerchiefs, disposable paper towels for hand towels, disposable table napkins for cloth napkins, and throwaway beverage containers for refillable ones. In perhaps the ultimate insult, the shopping bags that are used to carry home throwaway products are themselves designed to be discarded, becoming part of the garbage flow. We are literally choking the planet with products, which cannot re-enter the life cycle. If we all take a moment and become conscious of our waste it can be the beginning of an awareness that can affect positive change.
(Source: The Earth Policy Reader)


Plastic Bag Facts

  1. 12 million barrels of oil are used to make the plastic bags consumed in the U.S. annually.
  2. 88.5 billion plastic bags were consumed in the U.S. last year.
  3. It takes up to 1000 years for regular plastic bags to biodegrade in our landfills. Learn more about oxo-degradable plastics which will degrade within 2 years.
  4. The average family of four uses 1460 plastic bags a year.
  5. An estimated 500 billion plastic bags are sold worldwide each year.
  6. Less than 1% of all plastic bags are recycled in the U.S. Learn more on how to reuse your plastic bags.
  7. Over 100,000 birds and marine life die each year due to an encounter with plastic debris, much of it plastic bags.
  8. Plastic is over-running our planet.  Estimates run as high as one million pieces of plastic per square kilometer (0.6 mile) floating in specific areas of the Pacific Ocean.
  9. When one ton of plastic bags are reused or recycled, the energy saved is equal to 11 barrels of oil.

But plastic bags are so convenient!

It depends on how far you are looking.  A plastic bag may be convenient for a minute or two when you carry something out of the store, but for the rest of the life of the bag (which is forever) it is not just inconvenient, it is ugly, toxic, and life-threatening.  There are alternatives to plastic bags, many of which were used by our parents and grandparents quite handily.  Some ideas are suggested below.

What can I do?

  1. Learn more about the impact of plastic packaging.
  2. Begin today to limit, and then eventually stop, your consumption of plastic bags.
  3. Know your alternatives. Learn more about oxo-degradable plastics.
  4. Use your alternatives.
  5. Refuse to accept plastic bags from clerks who habitually stuff your purchases into the standard packaging.

Two large canvas bags of premium quality cost about $30, and should last about 10 years.  If plastic bag fees, under consideration in some California communities, are instituted at a conservative 15 cents/bag, a family switching from four plastic shopping bags per week will recover its purchase cost in the first year.  In the nine years following, an additional $30 per year would be saved.
(Source: EPA, Time Magazine, and


Paper Bag Facts

  1. 14 million trees are cut down to make the paper bags used in a year.
  2. Only 20% of paper bags get recycled.
  3. When one ton of paper bags is reused or recycled, three cubic meters of landfill space is saved and 13-17 trees are spared! In 1997, 955,000 tons of paper bags were used in the United States.
  4. Paper cannot be recycled indefinitely. It can only be recycled 4-6 times. Some virgin pulp must be introduced into the process to maintain the strength and quality of the fiber, so no matter how much we recycle we will never eradicate the need for virgin fiber.
  5. Paper is the number one material that we throw away. For every 100 pounds of trash we throw away, 35 pounds is paper. Newspapers take up about 14 percent of landfill space, and paper in packaging accounts for another 15 to 20 percent.

(Source: EPA, Institute for lifecycle Environmental Assessment and