Plastic or paper: which is better for the environment?

The most basic of environmental questions doesn't have an easy answer.

December 23, 2019 

"Plastic or paper?"

For me, it’s an internal battle every time I go the grocery store— which feels like every day during the holidays.

Paper seems like the "greener" choice, (compostable,recyclable) but it looks harder for the cashier to load. And plastic is just…ugh. We’ve all seen heartbreaking images of plastic bags floating in the ocean and gumming up whales’ digestive tracks. But in this moment, there are no whales and plastic bags are easier to carry. The cashier uses four bags to wrap my eggs and I’m mentally screaming…And I don’t say anything.

What’s an eco-conscious hypocrite to do? Which is the more environmentally friendly choice: plastic or paper?

I asked Nancy Lauer, Ph.D, and Michelle Nowlin, J.D., of the Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic. Their answer? Both options aren’t great.

The problem with paper

Yes, it’s true, you can recycle or compost paper bags. But if you worry about climate change, the paper bag isn’t a good option.

“Paper bags are water-intensive and energy-intensive to produce,” said Lauer. “They have a large impact at the beginning of their life.”

In 2011, the British Environment Agency produced a report that compared the life cycle energy costs of different types of bags. They found that paper bags have to be used three times to have a smaller energy impact than using a plastic bag only ONE time.

The report also found that recycling and composting paper bags doesn’t significantly reduce their global warming impact. 

The problem with plastic

Plastic bags are more troublesome at the end of their lives. They take centuries to break down and if they don’t make it to a landfill, they end up in streams, creeks and eventually the ocean, causing issues for wildlife and generally creating menace for aesthetics.

Of the 14 billion plastic bags used every year in America, only 1 percent are returned to grocery stores or specialized recycling facilities (most North Carolina grocery stores recycle plastic bags). So most bags end up in landfills or as litter. 

Lauer said a survey of Durham’s litter found that plastic bags contributed 8 percent of what they found. 

Sending plastic bags to a standard recycling plant makes things worse. 

“A lot of people mistakenly think they can recycle plastic bags, but we’ve learned that they wreak havoc at recycling plants, they get tangled in the machinery and disrupt the sorting line,” said Lauer.

What about re-usable bags?

The same 2011 study found that a re-usable cotton bag would have to be used 131 times to make up for the global warming impact it generates on the production side.

“Going out a buying a virgin organic cotton bag might not be the best option,” said Lauer. “Think about what resources are already out there. If you have a re-usable bag, use it over and over again.”

Refuse and Re-use (over and over again)

Nowlin recommends simply avoiding the choice and refusing the bag. “Use a bag you already have, or just carry your groceries!” she said. “We want to reduce the generation of waste to begin with, at the source.” If you have to get a plastic or paper bag, try to re-use it next time you shop.

Nowlin has been working with Don’t Waste Durham, an outreach organization with stakeholders across the county, to investigate the possibility of small fees on both plastic and paper bags. Nowlin said that business surveys conducted by the group show that between 70 and 80 percent of store managers and owners support the measure.

“Those bags costs money to retailers, a fee would help that business with their bottom line,” said Nowlin. “And it's an economic signal might change consumer culture and behavior.”

Check out Don’t Waste Durham’s website and look for places to recycle your plastic bags here.

—Rossie Izlar

Rossie Izlar is a digital producer on the UNC-TV Science team.