Why do we use paper bags

The material of choice - plastic or paper?

This question has sparked a lot of debate: should plastic bags be used or paper bags when shopping for groceries? At first glance, this is an easy choice, but there are numerous positive and negative aspects associated with each type of bag. From sustainability and reusability to the costs over the entire life cycle, there are many things to consider with paper and plastic bags that are not immediately apparent. So let's look at how each type affects the environment.

Plastic or paper - a comparison of facts and figures

Many people believe that paper bags are significantly more environmentally friendly than plastic bags because they are ultimately made from wood, a natural, organic and renewable resource. Plastic, on the other hand, is made in a chemical process from oil or gas, a non-renewable raw material. However, if we take a closer look at the manufacturing processes of both materials, the production of paper bags appears to be significantly less environmentally friendly than the production of plastic bags. Below is a comparative overview of the manufacture of plastic and paper bags (1).

As you can see, water is needed in both production processes, but only 220 liters of water are needed to make 1000 plastic bags, while 3800 liters are needed to make the same number of paper bags.(1) Plastic bags also score significantly better in terms of energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions during the production process.

To replace all plastic bags that are used in the European Union during a year with paper bags, an additional 2.2 million trees would have to be felled. This would mean that 110 km² of forest would be cleared. If the wood comes from sustainable forestry (in which 5% of the adult trees are felled each year and replaced by new saplings), an area that is almost the size of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg would be required.(2) In addition, 156 billion liters of water would be required annually (the equivalent of 60,000 Olympic-sized pools).(3)

A study commissioned by the international retail chain Carrefour Group(4) compared the environmental impact of paper and plastic bags in 2005. The result was that plastic bags were generally more environmentally friendly than paper bags and that the more often they were reused, the more important their benefits became.

Recycling: paper or plastic

Recycling paper and plastic bags is not an easy process. For the recycling of paper, the fibers of the collected waste paper must first be broken down, which requires numerous chemicals for bleaching and separating the different fibers. These fibers are then cleaned and checked to make sure they are not contaminated. Finally, the fibers are washed before being pressed and rolled back into paper. In Europe, thanks to local waste paper collections, the current recycling rate is 70% - a success. More than 60 million tons of waste paper are collected in Europe every year (5).

To recycle plastic, it has to be melted down and re-molded, although the quality is not as good as new plastic. This is why plastic is often used for lower quality products after recycling. One also speaks of "downcycling". Due to stricter waste laws and set EU targets, the recycling and recovery of plastic is steadily increasing across Europe (6). In the Netherlands, the “Plastic Heroes” campaign aimed at an effective recycling rate of 42% of all plastic waste in 2012. Although 91% less energy is required to recycle one kilo of plastic than the same amount of paper (7), it must be ensured that the recycling flows are stimulated and improved in order to reduce the one-time use of bags and save valuable raw materials. If people in all European countries were more responsible for recycling plastic, an enormous amount of plastic could be efficiently reused in this way.

The negative image of plastic

Between 500 billion and 1 trillion plastic bags are used worldwide every year (8). Many millions of these do not end up in the orderly waste management system (according to estimates, this affects 1-3% of plastic bags(9)). This is one of the reasons why plastic bags have a poor public image. Torn bags, caught in trees, clogged gullies, or floating in the sea actually cause problems. Pictures of dolphins, turtles or penguins perishing from ingesting plastic have caused a public outcry. For these reasons, some EU member states have taken measures to curb the growing consumption of plastic bags and the pollution they cause. Ireland and Denmark have introduced special taxes, while retailers in Belgium and France charge a fee to finance collection and recycling. The Italian government has taken the issue a step further with a total ban on plastic bags.

We need to be more responsible

Taxation or bans may reduce the amount of plastic bags used, but if we replace them with paper bags, for example, higher amounts of greenhouse gas are released and at the same time we need more energy to cut, print and pack them and transport them. A good solution is to reuse plastic or paper bags for grocery shopping and eventually use them as trash bags. Investing in a high quality reusable bag or collapsible plastic box is a more sustainable solution. The most effective solution is for people to take responsibility for their waste and separate their rubbish properly so that plastic bags are avoided in the first place and get into the seas. Plastic only decomposes slowly in nature, and this can take months even with paper (10).

We can only prevent the amount of plastic in our seas from increasing through sensible waste management. At the 5th international conference on marine pollution(11) In March 2011 in Honolulu, representatives of plastics organizations around the world committed themselves to an initiative aimed at preventing litter in the oceans. You will work with scientists and researchers to map the levels, sources and effects of litter in the seas and propose solutions, especially for coastal countries. In Europe, fishermen are paid to collect waste, especially plastic waste, using special booms (12). This pilot project was started by the European Plastics Converters (a trade organization at EU level) and is supported by the European Fisheries Fund. The initiative will protect marine life and help clean up the oceans. Ultimately, however, every initiative for clean waste recycling begins with YOU!


(1)Plastics' contribution to climate protection

(2) Sur la base de l'étude memorial “The impact of plastics on life cycle energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions in Europe”, PlasticsEurope, 2010

(3) Sur la base de “Life Cycle Assessment for three types of grocery bags”, by Boustead, 2005

(4)The Scottish Government: publication

(5)Paper Online: Paper recovering and recycling

(6)The Plastics Portal: Recovery & recycling of PET

(7)Reuseit.com: Myth: Paper is Better Than Plastic

(8)Copperwiki.org: Plastic bags

(9)National Geographic: Are Plastic Grocery Bags Sacking the Environment?

(10)Ansers.com: How long does paper take to decompose?

(11)(Marine Debris Solutions: Global Plastics and Plastic Product Producers Take Action on Marine Litter)

(12)Waste free oceans