Plastic Bags: Friend or Foe?

"Paper or plastic?" is a question everyone in American has been asked at least once in their lifetimes. Many people have debated over whats better but economist have a simple answer: plastic. Plastic bags are much more resource efficient. Plastic bags require much less energy than paper bags to manufacture. An average paper bag takes 2511 BTUs to manufacture, while an average plastic bag takes only 591 BTUs (roplast). This is mainly because it takes 1/8 of the material to make a plastic bag as it does to make a paper bag.

Paper bags also come from trees while plastic do not. This means that the more paper bags are consumed the more trees are being cut down. Cutting down forests is a huge resource cost. Once the bags are made they still need to be transported to their final destination. They are transpoted on ships and trucks. Because plastic bags are much thinner and lighter than paper bags, it would take seven 45 foot trucks to transport the same amount of paper bags as one 45 foot truck of plastic bags. This is a large comparable savings on fuel, congestion and smog caused by the shipping of the bags.


Paper bags are made by heating wood chips in a chemical solution under pressure. These chemicals produce high amounts of air and water pollution. In fact paper bag production produces 70% more air pollution and 50 times more water pollution than plastic bag production.

Disposing of paper bags is also inferior to plastic bags. The amount of waste by weight is 400% higher with paper than plastic and the amount of waste by volume is higher by more than 250%. These last two figures are of considerable importance if either bag ends up in a landfill. Landfills are running low on space and here plastic bags give much more bang for the buck. Even if we The energy required to recycle is 1444 BTUs for a typical paper bag while only 17 BTUs for a typical plastic bag. If the bags are not recycled but instead burned, plastic bags release almost as much energy as oil. Plastic bags release 19,900 BTUs compared to oil's 20,000 BTUs. Paper pails in comparison with only 8,000 BTUs.