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By: Jill McGrady-Steed, Ph.D.

Paper (n)or plastic.

Image courtesy of InfinityGivingCircle.

Californians use an estimated 19 billion plastic bags a year1. Many residents are fed up with plastic bags littering their beaches and tangled in their shrubbery. Last month, Solana Beach was the first San Diego city to pass a plastic bag ban, and they aren’t the only ones. Solana Beach joins several cities and counties that have prohibited plastic bags since 2008, including Long Beach, Calabasas, Santa Monica, and areas of Los Angeles County, as well as dozens of other cities across California. Despite this groundswell, the US is behind the curve worldwide as more countries have established nationwide greening priorities that include plastic bag bans, fees, and taxes. Plastic bag litter has become such an environmental issue in Ireland that the country has enacted a plas-tax, a widely successful tax that has reduced plastic bag use by more than 90%. Since China enacted a bag ban in 2008, plastic bag usage has decreased by 66% and saved more than 1.6 million tons of petroleum used in plastic bag production2.

We are bombarded with warnings about the evils of plastic bag consumption so who needs another blog about it? …..Well, when was the last time you walked out of a store with a paper or plastic bag….not long ago, was it? Despite our best intentions and trendy reusable bags, a common eco-flaw is the tendency to forget our reusable bags at home or in the car. Perhaps a reminder of the environmental impacts might help to reinforce our reusable bag habits or persuade us to establish some new ones. It is commonly estimated that 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags are used each year worldwide3. That’s almost 1 million plastic bags used per minute; 60,000 of them are used in the US every 5 seconds!

Used once, thrown away, and pollute our oceans. Image courtesy of HuntsvilleAL.gov

Plastic bags may be designed for single use, but they inevitably pollute the environment, ending up in our streams, creeks, and the ocean. Furthermore, they can take up to 1,000 years to fully degrade4. Because most plastics photodegrade rather than biodegrade (that is, they degrade in response to sun exposure rather than by organism conversion), they are broken down into smaller pieces of plastic that can be harmful or fatal to marine birds and animals.

Approximately 100,000 turtles die each year from entanglement or ingestion of plastic marine debris.
Image courtesy of Integrated Environmental Solutions

Think about it—an item that we use for a few minutes ends up floating in our oceans for a few hundred years! Not only do plastic bags pollute our oceans, but also researchers have found that plastic debris acts like a sponge for toxic chemicals, soaking up a million fold greater concentration (than the surrounding water) of harmful compounds that make their way up the food chain. An estimated 1 million birds, 100,000 turtles, and other sea animals die each year from entanglement or ingestion of plastic marine debris5.

With all these statistics, paper bags seem to be the better alternative, right? Wrong. There is a popular misconception that paper bags are more environmentally friendly than plastic bags. Although it is true that paper bags are less of a litter problem, the impact of paper bag production on forests is enormous. The US alone consumes 10 billion paper bags annually, requiring 14 million trees6. That’s a global warming double-whammy, as trees, the major absorbers of greenhouse gases, are cut down, and subsequent bag manufacturing and transport produces more greenhouse gases and air pollution. It turns out that recycling a paper bag also uses more energy than recycling a plastic bag.

So if paper bags are just as detrimental as plastic ones, which one do you choose when you forget to bring your reusable bags? Opt for whichever bag you are most likely to recycle or reuse, and use as few bags as necessary. Typically, recycling rates of both types of disposable bags are extremely low. An estimated 85 to 90% of paper bags and 95% of plastic bags are not recycled6. Additionally, recycling requires energy and resources that could be conserved if more people simply switched to reusable bags. One piece of advice—don’t opt for the cheap polypropylene bags that flooded the market during the onslaught of greenwashing—they tend to create a new version of the same old problem. Choose canvas, hemp, woven cotton, or other biodegradable options made from durable, washable materials that last for thousands of uses.

If you’re still not convinced think about this: ONE reusable bag can replace 2 shopping bags per trip, twice a week. That’s 16 bags per month and 192 bags per year. Over an average adult lifetime, the use of just one reusable bag would save more than 11,500 disposable bags.

Graphic by Great Ecology

So how do you remember your reusable bag when you run to the store?

Perfect for a quick grocery run or trip to the farmer’s market and don’t forget the free advertising.

Buy reusable bags that tuck into tiny pouches or clip on your keychain, and keep a few in your backpack or purse so you always have one on hand. Choose new options that fit perfectly into a grocery cart; make a fashion statement with a cool eco-friendly purse that can accommodate a light shopping trip; or create your own bags with your company logo and take advantage of free advertising! You can even avoid using those flimsy produce bags they offer at grocery stores by supplying your own reusable produce bag (available at The Container Store). In addition, several lines of green-mom products have created reusable products, reducing the need for a range of plastic containers. And if you are really desperate to remember your reusable bags, listen to a catchy green-tune that is sure to get stuck in your head (watch this all the way to the end!).

Next time someone asks “paper or plastic?” tell them you BYOB!


  1. Nice bags I really like produce bags made of organic cotton!

    Comment by Thompson — October 14, 2012 @ 6:50 pm

  2. […] droppings down a toilet to reduce use of plastic bags, there is nothing stopping me from, using reusable bags at the grocery store, drying my hands on my pants instead of using paper towels, carpooling with […]

    Pingback by Environmental Stewardship 50 Shades — February 22, 2013 @ 11:39 pm

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