Paper Bags versus Plastic Bags – Real Numbers

April 17, 2008

in eco-friendly packaging, recycled plastic bags, recycling, Robby's Notes

Are plastic bags getting a bad rap?

Look in almost any newspaper on any weekend and you will find an article about local governments that are considering taxing, banning or somehow regulating plastic bags.  It is becoming undeservedly easy to hate the lowly plastic bag!

Paper vs. Plastic: Real Science

These articles usually leave out the facts as well as the comparison research.  Take an honest look at what is required to produce 1000 plastic bags versus 1000 comparable paper bags.  If the media would present the facts, as intelligent people we could make accurately informed decisions.

Keep in mind, Nashville Wraps sells both paper and plastic bags.  In fact, we derive much more of our revenue from paper bags.

A factual comparison follows:

1000 Grocery Size Shopping Bags
Paper shopping bag
Plastic shopping bag
140 lbs.
15 lbs.
Cubic Feet
17.8 cu. feet
0.4 cu. feet
Total Cost
Diesel used in transit
0.58 gallons
0.06 gallons
Air Emissions
3.225 lbs. solids
1.62 lbs. solids
Petroleum used
3.67 lbs.
1.62 lbs.
BTUs required
Indefinite recycled life?
USA raw materials?
Shipping assumes truck freight at $20/cwt for 1,000 miles average. 6 mile per gallon hauling 40,000 lbs in a full truck load. Emission and BTU data from The University of Texas at Austin, Michigan Technological University, and the US Environmental Protection Agency 2001. Bags are compared with new materials. Plastic bags require less energy to collect and recycle than paper bags.

What is the core problem with plastic bags?

Litter is the core issue because plastic bags of the past were slow to degrade or did not degrade at all.  That was then, now plastic bags can be biodegradable. We do not have to ban a good product.   A recent article in USA Today by Judy Keen states that litter is down in San Francisco due to the ban on grocery store PE bags.  Is that true or are citizens more aware and acting more responsibly?

Are plastic bags made from foreign oil?

There is less foreign oil used to make plastic bags than there is to make paper ones, because less energy is required. True, some PE is made from oil derivatives; but examine the source of that PE resin. Years ago, Asian resin was used to make the plastic bags that we sold. Today the Asian governments no longer subsidize PE resin. Current sources are primarily domestic and derived from Natural Gas (ethane) and a by-product of the distillation of crude oil (foreign or domestic) but not the oil itself.  Ethane is similar to propane, butane and other natural gases. Ethane Extraction is being revolutionized with outstanding new science. All of the plastic bags sold by Nashville Wraps are made in the USA with a minimum of 25% recycled plastics – some as high as 100%. Less and less new materials, ethane or otherwise are needed to manufacture plastic bags.

Recycling plastic versus paper bags

Plastic bags do not “down cycle”, meaning plastic bags can beget plastic bags ad infinitum. On the other hand, paper has a limited recyclable life span. The fibers break down too much after continued re-pulping. At the end of papers recyclable life it can be used in fillers and lower grade materials. Both paper and plastic are easy to recycle these days, paper just costs more and requires more energy to recycle. Plastic bags hit the re-grinder and in 45 minutes are new plastic bags. I have seen it happen.

Plastic bags made from corn?

We favor legislation that would require HDPE plastic bags under 1.0 mil to be degradable. (Nashville Wraps has already adopted this standard). Emphatically, PE (polyethylene) based and not PLA (corn based) plastic bags. PLA is not recyclable! It is “Compostable”. There is a huge difference. PLA bags would disrupt the recycling of normal PE plastic bags and initially they cost as much as paper. PLA is great for many products, just not grocery bags in our opinion.

PE bags are now bio-degradable

Without boring you will all the scientific data (it is available, see resources below) there is a new additive that we put into HDPE plastic grocery bags. It helps the PE molecules biodegrade. This process takes place aerobically or anaerobically. It takes place with or without the presence of light. These factors promote biodegradation even in landfill conditions which are normally not conducive to biodegradation. (See ECM Products Overview). Paper will biodegrade when oxygen and moisture are present neither of which are readily available in landfills.

Where does this leave us?

Well, now we know that neither paper or plastic bags are particularly bad, they just have different properties. Nashville Wraps favors responsible products, both paper and plastic when made in the USA from recycled US materials by emission reducing processes. It is just that simple.

The free market system works. Informed people make informed choices. Paper or plastic? You decide which is best for your needs as both are good and sustainable products.

R Meadows, Nashville Wraps

Nashville Wraps

Nashville Wraps is the leader in eco-friendly gift & gourmet packaging. Our focus since 1976 has been beautiful packaging, competitive prices, fast shipping and taking care of our customers. We listen. We care about your success. Most of all, we want to make your business look good.

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Leave a Comment

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Renee Wise May 27, 2017 at 10:52 pm

Paper or plastic? How about neither. I bring my reusable cloth bags with me. Unfortunately little plastic gets recycled and it all too often winds up in our oceans, lakes and rivers, where it affects the lifecycle of the animals and plants there.

Billy Hogan May 12, 2016 at 8:19 am

This was a great article! I enjoyed the read and learned a few things too! Thanks.

Buffie Baril November 5, 2012 at 10:00 pm

Hi Steve!

Plastic bags are not the enemy – people just need to be educated. Please refer to our many blogs listed below on this subject. Keep us posted and good luck!

Steve November 5, 2012 at 10:52 am

My community is considering a ban on Plastic bags for grocery stores. Can you point me to some resources that further prove your points in this article?

Robby September 8, 2009 at 2:37 pm

1.) EPI is the leader of oxo-biodegradable plastic additive technology. Totally Degradable Plastic Additives (“TDPA™”) technology is an environmentally friendly and practical solution to the world’s plastic waste problems. See All of the Nashville Wraps – Green Way brand use the EPI additive. There is presently an effort to discredit oxo-biodegradable plastics but they have been unsuccessful because it is hard to dispute truth even with cooked science.

2.) This is definitely NOT TRUE. I wish it was because our revenues would go up if it were. We are in the packaging distribution business so I’d say we are experts and have actual real world numbers. Most grocery stores and retail business do not use the 100% recycled paper because it simply costs more. Presently (September 2009) only 30% of our entire paper bag customers are using 100% recycled bags but that is still up 5% from 2008. It is a myth that recycling paper has less environmental impact that plastic. Think about it for just a minute…Plastic is a fraction of the weight of paper. Paper has to be re-pulped by a large industrial process which requires thousands of gallons of water and massive amounts of power to run the pulpers. I have a friend who owns a paper mill and another who owns a plastic bag recycling company. I have seen both operations, talked in depth to the owners, know and have witnessed the science and can say definitively that plastic has a much smaller overall carbon footprint.

3.) Those were the numbers before the grassroots “green movement” began. Same is true for paper bags. Funny how that gets left out of arguments for paper.

4.) I have not found this to be entirely accurate. It depends on the type and style of bags being compared. If we compare a standard t-sack 12x7x21 to a 1/6bbl std paper grocery sack, then yes. The paper bag is larger than the plastic one. So the argument is like saying I can put more potatoes into a 10lbs paper sack than you can in 5lb plastic one. Yep! In the real world this statement of comparison is probably true because of the type of sacks that grocers typically buy. Plastic grocery bags cost 3 cents and paper bags cost 50 cents. Paper grocery bags being referred to weigh almost ¼ a pound each (3.32 ounces) whereas a plastic bags weight 2/10th of an ounce. Do the math.

Nothing in any argument makes more sense than using, collecting and recycling plastic bags. Rinse and repeat!

Robby Meadows, Nashville Wraps

Forrest Chambless February 4, 2009 at 4:43 pm

Three MAJOR MISSTATEMENTS of fact in your article, and a couple other major omissions:
1.) Plastic bags are NOT biodegradable. Allegedly biodegradable bags are have wood pulp or corn starch mixed in so that they break–down into very small pieces of non-biodegradable plastic.
2.) Most paper bags in grocery stores today are made from 100% recycled materials which has less than one third the impact in pollution and energy use than that made from virgin products.
3.) Less than 3% of all plastic bags are recycled. Most people throw them away after hearing the myth that they are biodegradable.
4.) What you fail to mention is that one paper bag can hold as much as three typical plastic bags, which makes the impact discrepency even less!!

By all means, use recyclable bags. But plastic is not the answer you make it out to be.

diane e. sayre May 18, 2008 at 3:45 pm

My daughter is having a green vegan wedding. We are planting trees for all our out of town guests and encouraging them to plant one where they live, in addition to many other green things that we are doing. We would like to educate our guests about how many resources they are saving by having a vegan wedding, staying in a hotel three miles from the venue and walking distance to a multitude of stores, including a coffee/dessert shop, hardware store, pharmacy and a number of restaurants. Is there a website that could help us figure it out?

Most of all, thank you for all that you are doing. Why isn’t someone in your company running for office in the government sector?Think of what we could be saving in the white house alone as far as just water bottles.

Krystal Kelly May 14, 2008 at 10:13 am

Fabulous! I have been trying to cut through the green rhetoric that assaults all of us on a daily basis. I suspected that the whole paper vs plastic debate wasn’t as simple as paper=good, plastic=bad. Thank you for presenting a very well thought out article! I hope everyone will follow your lead!

Debbi Harris May 10, 2008 at 10:02 am

Thank you for taking the time to present such a great comparison of paper vs. plastic. I have been a long time recycler but was not aware of the statistics you presented-probably because I didn’t take the time to investigate as you did. As a science teacher, this is a comparison my 8th graders can easily understand. Thanx again.

Audrey Stockwell May 4, 2008 at 12:50 pm

When grocery shopping, I take thermal bags for the cold stuff and a reusable soft fiber bags for the rest. Some of the items must be packaged in plastic, but I reuse the plastic for trash bags. i’m glad to know they can be recycled.

Laura Andres May 1, 2008 at 1:37 pm

I like this article. It makes me feel much better about using plastic bags in some of our packaging. How does cellophane measure up?

Lorie Lee Sonni April 23, 2008 at 10:05 am

Your information is wonderful! As a ‘former’ Environmental Educator turned ‘soap maker’, I applaud your efforts to educate on going green. The information you present is useful on so many levels. Keep up the great work!

Terri Alger April 20, 2008 at 1:36 pm

Thank you for the information. I too thought paper was better to use since I have been hearing bad info on plastic. I still use plastic bags in the store because I had quite a few on hand. Now I won’t feel bad about using them.

Shannon Powell April 20, 2008 at 9:21 am

thank you! i had switched to paper thinking it was better, now I will use those up and go back to plastic! i appreciate your company very much… it is nice to see a company share information wiht it’s clients 🙂
Shannon Powell, owner Shanhil Sweets

Teresa @ The Porch April 19, 2008 at 5:29 pm

Thank you for addressing these issues – I haven’t been able to answer client questions (or internal employee criticism) about our packaging, and haven’t been sure what to do.

The final choice of packaging or not is with the consumer, right? I think it’s good, as a shop owner, to be responsible and knowledgeable about your shop packaging – there have been several people who were quick to try to ‘educate’ me about ‘going green’. I can now feel better about packaging decisions.

kevin e moore April 19, 2008 at 11:23 am

just came back from a child’s function that promoted the use of reuseable bags & paper bags while discouraging the use of plastic bags.I knew that plastic was now the more desireable for the environment but it wasn’t my place to say anything …the next time I’ll say something! The child didn’t do his research or did it badly so I’ll share your site with him.Thanks!

Dorrine Guinane April 18, 2008 at 12:27 pm

Thank you for such an informative and timely article. Very well written, we appreciate the time you took to bring us up to speed on the new developments with plastic bags.

Amy Weiland April 17, 2008 at 6:30 pm

This is so informative! Thank you for making it so easy to learn. All this time I thought it was better to use paper. When I use up all of our paper bags, I will re-order in plastic solely because it is better for the environment. Thanks again, Amy Weiland, Owner, The Velvet Snoot Luxury Pet Boutique

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