The Myth of Paper Bags: A Misconception of Environmentalism
Plastic bags were originally introduced as the economic and environmentally superior choice over paper bags, due to their low production costs, smaller ecological footprint, lighter weight, easier storage, and low shipping price. Understandably, people took all of these advantages to heart. This led to plastic bags capturing 80 percent of the grocery bag market in a relatively short amount of time. The disadvantages of plastic bags would not been truly realized until much damage has already been done, and in haste to move away from that mistake, some people have mistakenly moved back to paper bags, believing them to be the superior choice for grocery bags. Unfortunately, paper bags still have their numerous disadvantages, are ultimately are no better than their plastic competitors.
Part of the negative perception behind plastic bags is their production. Being made of plastic, they're seen as a waste of oil - an already expensive commodity these days. This is perception is true, but only 53 percent of the oil used in the process of making bags and shipping it to a store is actually expended on bag construction; meaning 47 percent of the oil use involved in plastic bags is simply getting the bag into your hands.
Why is this relevant? Compare those numbers to the following information about paper bags: paper bags weigh ten times more than plastic bags, and take up seven times more space. Thus the petroleum costs for transit (which accounted for 47 percent of the use for plastic bags) actually end up being higher than is used in a plastic bag!
The higher petroleum costs involved in transport is not the only way that plastic bags impact the environment. Obviously there is the timber required for production, and the vastly higher energy costs involved - it takes the equivalent of 15,100 barrels of oil worth of energy to manufacture 100 million paper bags. A paper bag also requires 20 times more water to produce than a plastic bag.
The ecological costs of these bags are high, and the only solution is to curb consumption. This is done by reusing bags - a trend that seems to fortunately be a popular one. MSNBC took a survey in 2008 that showed that 38 percent of responders thought of reusability first in the decision of page choice. A fortunate answer that shows that people ultimately want to make the right choice - and simply need the information to do so.