OPINION: Is the "Paper is better than plastic" grocery bag argument a myth?


Dixon is a first-year Environmental
Fellow from Evansville, Indiana.

In almost any Google search about how the average person can be more sustainable, there will be the repeated instruction to choose paper over plastic when the cashier asks his/her preference at the grocery store. This is a widely accepted piece of knowledge about environmental sustainability, but unfortunately, this could be myth. There are benefits and costs of each type of disposable bag. The bottom line is neither is sustainable.

The biggest reason the consumer could choose paper instead of plastic is because plastic is not biodegradable. The synthesized material takes hundreds of years to decompose. Also, plastic bags are one of the biggest contributors to The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The Patch is, in essence, a giant, floating mass of plastic in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It spans miles and consists of all different types of plastic. The Patch floats thanks to all of the plastic bags and bottles that intertwine in ways more convoluted than a Burn Notice plot. This patch is mobile and deadly. It impedes commercial boat traffic, wildlife, and fishing. Though some consumers reuse plastic bags for trash that is where they still end up—in the trash.

Though the above paragraph may make readers want to immediately pick paper over plastic, there are substantial reasons to be wary of this choice. Paper bags can end up in the trash just as easily as plastic bags. Despite the fact that they are biodegradable, which is the main reason people tend to choose paper, they cannot decompose because of the aerobic (devoid of oxygen) conditions. The lack of oxygen prevents bacteria from breaking down biodegradable material like newspapers or paper grocery bags. Some newspapers are still legible even after they have spent decades in landfills. In addition to the paper bags’ equal chance at ending up in a landfill, the process of companies’ producing paper bags requires resources that are already disappearing at an unsustainable rate. These include water and tree pulp. Water is exponentially becoming “liquid gold” for more people than just desert dwellers. Also, humans are deforesting land for all types of purposes like cropland and housing. Paper bags only contribute to the destruction of natural habitat. Therefore, paper may not be the best choice.

Even though paper still may seem appealing to consumers, the supreme choice is a reusable tote bag. Stores ranging from Walmart to The Fresh Market sell totes that even sometimes offer discounts in the store for customers’ using them instead of disposable bags. Though it can be difficult to remember to bring the tote in, once it becomes a habit, it will become second nature.