Paper bags remain an option in grocery stores and are preferred by many consumers for convenience; some people assume they are less damaging to the environment than plastic bags. The production of paper bags is, however, harmful to the environment in several ways. There are many identifiable pros and cons for the consumption, production and disposal of paper bags.
Paper Bag Consumption
Ten billion paper bags are used annually in the United States alone. It takes 14 million trees to meet this demand. Many consumers prefer paper bags because they hold more than plastic bags and are sturdier, but stores mostly prefer to give out plastic bags because they are cheaper than paper.
Paper Bag Production
Paper bags are mostly made from virgin tree pulp because recycled pulp is not as strong, so their production inevitably begins with chopping down trees. Paper bag production is damaging to the environment in two ways: chopping down trees reduces the absorption of greenhouse gases, and the manufacture of the bags requires use of toxic chemicals that contribute to air and water pollution. Additionally, the transportation of paper bags, which are relatively bulky and heavy, requires the consumption of petroleum, a non-renewable fossil fuel that causes further air pollution.
Paper Bag Disposal
A paper bag that ends up as litter will degrade in 10 months; however, in a landfill, it will not degrade for hundreds of years. Paper bags that are printed with vegetable-based dyes can be composted to provide a useful garden fertilizer. Paper bags can be reused as trash bags in the household and reused for groceries several times.
Paper Bag Recycling
Less than 15 percent of paper bags in the United States are recycled. Paper can only be recycled four to six times, and recycled paper is usually mixed with virgin tree pulp for strength, so recycled paper bags are rarely made from 100 percent recycled materials.
Paper vs Plastic
The manufacturing process for a paper bag requires four times as much energy as the manufacturing process for a plastic bag. The production of paper bags creates 50 times more water pollutants than the production of plastic bags and 70 percent more air pollutants. Additionally, it requires 98 percent more energy to recycle paper bags than it does to recycle plastic bags, but the recycling rate for paper is higher.